Phoenix People by Jan Pauw

Today’s excerpt is from the novel Phoenix People by Jan Pauw


Mark was a self-made billionaire but now is in prison after losing his wealth, reputation, marriage and freedom. Katy, a graduate student in forensic psychology, wants to do a PhD dissertation on his case.

At first Mark talks only about his business. Gradually he opens up about his family, friends and associates, trying to persuade Katy that he was a kind and caring husband, father, friend and mentor who did nothing wrong.

Katy is skeptical. She assumes he is manipulative and unreliable.

Mark thinks she is a naïve, affluent dilettante, but something seems odd about her. Slowly she reveals a terrible childhood and troubled adolescence. He becomes obsessed with her, but this frightens her and drives them further apart. They overcome distrust and misunderstandings as they learn about each other and themselves.

Their story is told mostly through letters they exchanged over several years and Katy’s notes and transcripts of meetings in prison. Katy also provides a brief introduction and a final chapter explaining how they eventually found mutual respect, admiration and affection.

Set up:

Mark keeps trying to persuade Katy that he is a kind and caring person who handled many business and family problems with great compassion. In this excerpt, he describes a time when he and his wife Cindy found their 17 year-old daughter hosting a skinny dipping and pot party at their lakefront mansion. (“Buddy” refers to one of Mark’s political proteges, a Congressman who later has an affair with Cindy.)


In late August 1991, shortly before Julie left for college, Cindy and I came home one evening and found five or six cars in the driveway. Julie and her friends were out on the dock and in the lake. There were beer bottles all over, piles of clothes here and there, kids skinny dipping. Julie saw me, giggled, handed me a cookie and said, “Have one.” Several kids laughed.

“What’s in ‘em?” asked Cindy.

“They’re A-B-T-Rs,” one of the kids said, giggling again.

“A-B-T-Rs?” I asked.

“Alice B. Toklas recipe,” said Julie.

“Pot,” said Cindy.

“Shit,” I said. Several kids snuffed out what they were smoking.

“Dad, I’m not a smoker so I can’t suck it in far enough or hold it in long enough to do any good, so I use the edibles, most of us do. Try one.”

“No, Julie, you know how I feel about that stuff.” I handed the cookie back and started to leave. Then I turned around and came back. “Listen, you guys, and that includes you girls too. I wish you hadn’t done this, but here we are, and now I’m worried about how you’re gonna get home safely. Most of you probably want to get your clothes back on and leave, but please don’t drive out of here drunk or high. Stay all night if you want, or at least stay long enough so be safe driving home. Or have the security guards drive you home.”

Cindy went in the house and I went to talk to the security guards. “There’s some kids out there that look pretty, ah, impaired.”

“We know, Boss. We didn’t know what we should do about it. What should we have done?”

“I don’t know. But try not to let them drive out of here if they seem drunk or high. Give them coffee or something. Drive them home if they’ll let you.”

I went in the house and got in bed. Cindy said, “She’s right you know. If you’re not a regular smoker and somebody gives you a joint, it’s hard to suck it in far enough and hold it in long enough to get any effect.”

“And you know this how?”

“By trying it, of course.”

“When you were a kid?”

“No, last month after Buddy’s fundraiser.” Another warning sign I missed.

“Was he smoking pot?”

“No. He said he promised you not to smoke it in the US until it was legal, and to tell you he’d kept that promise.”

“Oh, well, that part’s good.” I stared at the ceiling. “But this thing with Julie tonight, it’s so hard. I try to be a good father, and then this kind of shit comes along. What should I do now?”

“Go to sleep.”

“Cindy, this isn’t a joke. I really want to do the right thing, but what would that be?”

“I wasn’t joking. I know you try hard, but maybe too hard sometimes? Just relax. You’re usually so positive, so optimistic. Just be yourself. It’ll all be alright.” She rolled over and went to sleep. I stared at the ceiling for a long time, with a piece of song looping through my head:

“Try not to worry, try not to hang on to

“Problems that upset you, oh yes

“Everything’s all right, yes, everything’s fine,

“And we want you to sleep well tonight …”

Is it possible to try too hard to be good?

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About the author:

 I graduated from Shoreline High School in 1962, the University of Washington (B.A. English, 1966) and the Stanford Law School (J.D. 1969). At Stanford I was President of the Legal Aid Society and became interested in poverty law and other issues of the poor, but also interested in real estate, business and finance. After law school I went to work for Weyerhaeuser Company, expecting to work in those fields but quickly drifting into environmental and natural resources law. I retired in 2006.This is the first fiction I have written.

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