Excerpt for With Artistic License by , available in its entirety at Smashwords









Also by S.W. Clemens



TIME MANAGEMENT, a NOVEL


EVELYN MARSH



































WITH ARTISTIC LICENSE



S. W. CLEMENS
































For Mary Katherine

“The straw that stirs the drink”








All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by an information storage and retrieval system without permission in writing from the publisher.


This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance it bears to reality is entirely coincidental.



Copyright © Scott W. Clemens

Fezziwig Publishing Co.

ISBN: 978-0-9966123-1-9













PART ONE

The Gallery





























Prologue


Fortune is a moving target. We take aim at the future as though wearing blinders in a shooting gallery, never sure when the next duck or rabbit will cross our path. Sometimes we’re intent. Sometimes we’re distracted. Sometimes we’re so preoccupied by an itch, we don’t see the ducks waddling across the path right in front of us. Sometimes we’re so focused on the foreground, we fail to see the background. Some of us are quick on the trigger; some are too late. Sometimes one’s misfortune is another’s fortune.

Politics and religion, war and peace, prosperity and want, invention and tradition, famine and plenty, health and sickness, emotion and logic and luck all exert a gravitational pull on our individual ambitions, providing the context in which our personal tales play out their inevitable scenes. At the intersection of the historical and the personal, the choices we make or avoid making lead to opportunities seized or opportunities missed. These moments of nexus are rarely sought and even more rarely anticipated.





Chapter 1

Sunday September 21, 2008


On a Sunday afternoon in late September 2008, with the world’s financial infrastructure teetering on the verge of collapse, a silver Honda Accord and a black Volvo sedan pulled to the white curb on Washington Street. Both cars were filled with boxes. Both drivers held a cell phone to his ear.

From the curb, concrete steps led up to a concrete courtyard before a brick apartment building. Three stark concrete benches sat heavily around a large concrete planter box, from which a twenty-foot tall sycamore spread branches with golden leaves that quivered now in a cool breeze.

On the block of eight to twelve story buildings, four were boarded up, surrounded by wire fences, and rubble-strewn gaps showed where two buildings had been demolished. Nine over-arching, 60-year-old elms lent the street an air of community and history. Building activity could been seen on both sides of the street — yellow dumpsters, trash shoots and scaffolding, one rooftop crane, heaps of broken wood and bricks, the white dust of gypsum, pick-up trucks and vans, and the sounds of pneumatic hammers and electric saws. In a year the whole street would have the hopeful look of gentrification.

The driver of the Honda opened the door and stepped out, phone still to his ear. He looked up at wispy mare’s tails that laced the pale blue sky, and saw a pair of tennis shoes dangling from the telephone wire overhead. He glanced back at the Volvo with a pained look on his face. In his early thirties, 5’10”, fit, with close-cropped brown hair and long nose, he wore old jeans and an oversized baseball jersey with the number 19 on the back. His name was Curtis Cooke (his mother loved the alliteration).

The driver of the Volvo got out, his phone still to his ear and looked tentatively toward Curtis. He was barrel-chested, with full lips, aquiline nose, wire-rimmed glasses and thick, curly brown hair, a year or two younger and half a head shorter than Curtis. He wore jeans and an unbuttoned, well-worn plaid flannel shirt over a faded blue T-shirt that contrasted with his smart gold wristwatch and wedding ring.

Curtis patted the top of the Honda, thinking how best to phrase his next comment. He sighed and spoke into his phone. “Listen, Elliot, I appreciate your helping, I really do, but I could do without the marital advice.”

“It’s just I don’t get why the husband is the one who always has to move out,” said Elliot Fine.

“It’s not just about me.

“But…”

“Hang up, Elliot.”

“Hang up?”

“Hang up.”

They put their phones in their pockets, closed their car doors and resumed the conversation at the back of the Honda. “It’s not so easy,” Curtis said, opening the trunk. “Sammy’s going to be going through enough without uprooting him, too. Six-year-olds need stability.”

“Yeah, I understand that. But if she needs her space, why doesn’t she move out and leave the house to you and Sammy?”

“Nothing’s changed at work; I’ll still be gone a lot,” Curtis said ruefully, thinking with regret that his willingness to accept business trips had played a large roll in his failing marriage. There were a lot of things he’d do differently if given a second chance, but he could not turn back the clock. “Anyway, I can’t be home when Sammy gets out of school, and Linda doesn’t have anywhere to go,” he added, realizing as he said it that he hadn’t anywhere to go either, until he’d found this apartment. The extra expense was going to be difficult.

He handed Elliot a cardboard box, put two suitcases on the sidewalk and extended the handles, then pressed the automatic lock button on his key chain, hearing the trunk lock thunk satisfyingly into place. He glanced up and down the street scouting for possible thieves. “I’ll have to move it to the garage after we unpack — a car like this wouldn’t last two days out here.”

After seven more trips to the cars they stood on the bare, hardwood floor in the middle of the eighth floor artist’s garret. An enclosed bedroom and bath occupied the back left corner. An open kitchen occupied the back right corner, separated from the rest of the room by a breakfast bar. Above the kitchen an 18-foot ceiling with skylight sloped steeply to eight-foot high, floor-to-ceiling, north-facing windows.

The room was bare except for the boxes and suitcases they’d carried up, a director’s chair, a small wooden box filled with half-used tubes of oil paint, and a dozen paint-splotched canvases of various sizes in the corner by the window.

“At least it comes with original art,” Elliot quipped.

“I think there’s a reason the previous tenant left them,” Curtis said with a critical eye.

“It looks kind of empty.”

“I’ll rent some furniture this week.”

“And a TV,” Elliot added. “It won’t be so bad.”

Curtis knew it would be bad and nothing anyone could say could make it any better. “It’s just a three-month lease. With any luck I’ll be back by Christmas. She just needs some time alone.”

“We’ll miss you around the ‘hood, bro.” Elliot stepped over to the window. “You want me to pick you up on the way to work?”

“No, I think I’ll drive myself tomorrow — see how long it takes.”

“Hey, Curtis, there’s some kids by your car.”

The five teenagers were all dressed in uniforms of drooping jeans and hooded sweatshirts and baseball caps, but from eight stories high it was too far to see their faces clearly. Three were taking turns jumping their skateboards up onto one of the concrete benches. One was leaning on his car, and another sat on the right front quarter-panel, rhythmically swinging his legs. Curtis louvered open the bottom part of the window and yelled, “Hey, you, get off my car!”

The one leaning against his car looked up and laughed; one of the skateboarders paused long enough to give him the middle finger of both hands. The guy who’d been sitting on his car held up his hand as if to demonstrate what he held (it was too far away to see what it was), then walked the length of the car, grooving the silver paint. Then the five of them skipped a step or two with glee, and jogged and skateboarded away.

“That’s why I lease,” Curtis said.

In his dream he was giving his usual dog-and-pony show on financial investment. He was looking down the boardroom table crowded with faces turned intently his way, and at the end of the table his wife sat conversing with the man at the left corner. She was oblivious to his presentation and this both annoyed and worried him.

His cell phone started playing Ode to Joy. He awoke in the dark. His hand shot out, expecting the night table at home and knocked over an empty wine bottle instead. He cursed, found the lamp on the floor next to his air mattress and switched it on. Then he grabbed the phone. “Hello, hello?”

“Curtis?” It was Linda — his nominal wife. “Curtis, Sammy won’t sleep until he talks to you.” Jesus, she had a lovely voice.

“Okay, put him on,” Curtis said, coming fully awake now and looking about his surroundings with sudden recognition and disappointment. He lay on his air mattress on the floor of a room with windowless, bare white walls. Strewn about the sky blue carpeting were an empty wine glass and bottle, both on their sides, an alarm clock, the clothes he’d been wearing in a pile by the foot of the bed, and an open red rolling duffle bag. It was the kind of room he would have been happy with in college, but it was such a long step backward that he couldn’t help feeling depressed.

“Hi Dad.”

“Hey Scooter.”

“Mom said I can call.”

“Yeah, good, I’m glad you did.”

“You said you’d call before I went to bed.”

“What time is it?” he asked, more to himself than to his son, while he looked at his watch. It was just 10:30. “Oh, god — I fell asleep; I’m sorry.”

“That’s okay. I couldn’t sleep.” There was a long silence. “Daddy?”

“Yes?”

“I miss you.”

“I miss you, too.”

“Can I come visit?”

“It’s all set. Your mom’s dropping you off Saturday morning.”

“Is that a long time?”

“No, no, it’s just a few days. Don’t worry about it, buddy, okay? You get some sleep now.”

“’Night.”

“Love you.”

The phone went dead. Curtis flipped his phone shut, turned off the light and stared at the ceiling for a long time before he fell into a fitful sleep.







Chapter 2

Monday September 22 – Thursday September 25, 2008


In the morning he rushed into the office seventeen minutes late, briefcase in hand, suit coat slung over his shoulder. He paused, short of breath, at his secretary’s desk. “Barbara!” he moaned theatrically. “I’m sorry; I don’t have this new commute down — I thought it would be so quick, but...”

Barbara, a thin black woman with short-cropped hair and an attitude of studied disdain looked up from her magazine and observed, “You were drinking last night.”

He arched an eyebrow. “Is it that obvious?”

“Mr. Erickson would like to see you,” she said flatly, with a look that implied he’d been caught with his pants down. “By the way, the Market’s taking a dive.”

John Erickson stood behind the enormous desk in his corner office, looking concerned. He was tall and thin, with large wire-rimmed glasses that slightly magnified his pale blue eyes, which matched his pale blue tie. He gave the impression — by his pasty skin (just two shades darker than his white shirt), his colorless hair, his watery eyes — that he was not entirely there, that he was semi-transparent. He spoke slowly, in his mild (rather girlish) voice, as though vaguely troubled. “Sit down, sit down. How are you, Curtis? Are you doing…alright? You don’t look well.”

“I’m fine; I just didn’t sleep much last night,” Curtis said, the wheels of his mind churning. This certainly wasn’t about his arriving late, nor about his slight hangover (that was an anomaly). He’d always had an uneasy relationship with Erickson. The man was so stiff and restrained it was hard to have a normal conversation; there were often uncomfortable silences, which Curtis felt obliged to fill with foolish prattle. Though the man was only four years his senior, Erickson always threw Curtis off his game and made him feel like a clueless child.

Erickson remained standing and, leaning over his desk, bent toward Curtis like a vulture. Curtis watched as his boss looked left out the window for a long moment, then at his desk, and finally straight across the table. It was almost enough to make him pee in his pants. “I’ve heard, from certain quarters, that you’ve had some personal problems...”

“Yes, sir,” Curtis said. It had always galled him to say ‘sir’ to someone he considered his equal in age and education, but Erickson had a way of making him quail, of doubting his own abilities, of making him feel he was only masquerading as an adult.

“These things happen,” Erickson said, and turned toward the window as if contemplating something philosophical. “Do you need some time off?”

Curtis was caught off-guard by the question; it wasn’t what he expected. “No. Uh, uh. I…I don’t think…”

“Good.”

“…I don’t think it will affect my work,” Curtis finished.

Erickson brightened and seemed to shake out his stiffness. “Good, good.” There was a long pause as he looked out the window again and then slowly fixed Curtis’s eyes. “You’re all right with your presentations this week?”

“Yes, fine, perfect.”

“No distractions?”

“No, well yes, but work is a…good diversion.”

“Okay, that’s fine, then. So, you’re going to Chicago this week?”

“We leave tomorrow.”

“Who’s handling your clients while you’re gone?”

“Swenton; and I’ll be checking in by email.”

“And how are your clients doing? Did you have Lehman in any of your portfolios?”

This was a touchy subject. He’d held Lehman Brothers stock in virtually all of the portfolios he handled, and the company had gone belly up. “We took a big hit. We had some AIG, as well.”

“Any complaints from clients?”

“A few.”

“But you’re still ahead for the year?”

“It’s a close thing — depends on the portfolio. This has been a rough month.”

“I see.” Erickson seemed uncomfortable with how to end the conversation. There was another long pause as he gathered his thoughts. “Well, I’m sorry you’re having problems. I know it can be difficult. So…let me know if there’s anything we can do,” he said, making a shooing motion with the back of his hand as he sat down in the chair behind his large desk.

“Barbara, could you ask Elliot to poke his head in?” Curtis asked as he passed into his glass-fronted office.

Barbara turned her head and shouted, “Connie, tell Mr. Fine to get his ass down here!”

“Barbara-a-a!” Curtis admonished. She swung around in her chair and looked at him with upraised eyebrows. He pursed his lips and shook his head reproachfully. She mouthed “sorry,” shrugged, and swiveled back to her desk.

Constance McClarity poked her head around the door. “Elliot’s had car trouble, but he’ll be in soon.”

Curtis was presently engrossed in his work. He handled ten corporate clients and four individuals, two of whom were worth more than four of the corporations. He could have handled many more, for they all had the same stocks in their portfolios. From a list of 40 stocks he followed, he was constantly on the lookout to jettison under performing stocks, and to pick up those whose momentum was just on the upswing. He worked in tandem with Elliot (aka the Bond King) to help companies (and individuals with excess cash reserves) to protect and grow their investments through risk management techniques.

He spent his day before an array of four monitors following the markets, monitoring news that could have an impact on his portfolios, and the flow of institutional money in and out of various industry sectors. He studied technical charts, back tested strategies, read analysts’ reports, and made the occasional trade. When he made a trade in one portfolio, he generally made the same trade across several portfolios. He’d made some horrendous mistakes early in his career, but he’d learned from his mistakes and he now had a formula that had worked amazingly well until the past month.

Elliot came in more than an hour late looking harried. He burst into Curtis’s office, at once disheveled, upset and out-of-sorts. “Sorry. Damned Volvo…I don’t know, water pump or.... Triple A towed it to the shop, but they have to order a part.”

“Whatever. DOW’s falling like a rock,” Curtis said. He wasn’t in the least interested in Elliot’s car troubles. “You have everything in order for Wednesday?”

“Yeah, you know — it’s the same ol’, same ol’. Can you give me a ride home? You can stay for dinner.”

“Yeah, sure,” he said off-handedly, before remembering that he no longer lived across the street from Elliot. The apartment was on this side of the river and it would take an extra twenty minutes in each direction to drive Elliot home. But he’d agreed and was reconciled by the promise of one of Vicky’s meals. “Barbara!? Who has the tickets?”

“They’re e-tickets,” she said, passing the paper with the confirmation number to Elliot, who passed it to Curtis. “I couldn’t get two seats together; the flight was full.”

“These are Economy Class.”

“Mr. Carretta wouldn’t okay the upgrade.”

Curtis and Elliot marched down to Al Carretta’s office.

“Why can’t we fly Business Class?” Curtis said, feeling put out.

“Those days are over,” said Carretta, a beefy middle-aged man with a florid nose. “Arthur has issued a decree.”

“What the hell?” said Curtis.

“How does it look to our clients when we fly Business Class?” Carretta explained. “We’re all about preserving capital, not spending it frivolously.”

“I don’t find it frivolous. We need to be fresh when we get there.”

“You don’t have a presentation until the next day,” Carretta said, a hint of sarcasm in his voice.

“Yeah, well…” Curtis could think of nothing to say. It was true. But he was used to flying Business Class and didn’t like the idea of flying umpty-ump miles a year in steerage.

That evening as they pulled onto Westlake Drive, Curtis started to turn into his own driveway before he caught his mistake. “Sorry, force of habit.” He backed out and turned into Elliot’s driveway, catty-corner across the street. It was with a profound sense of displacement that he stepped out of the car and looked wistfully back at his erstwhile home.

“Daddy!” Sophie yelled when Elliot opened the door. Elliot scooped his five-year-old into his arms and she clung to his neck, beaming.

Vicky appeared in the doorway to the kitchen. She was short, with sensuous lips, a long straight nose and curly black hair. “Nathan’s down for his nap, so keep it quiet. Thanks for driving him home.”

“Victoria,” Curtis said, bowing ever so slightly with mock formality.

Elliot put Sophie down. “I want to get out of this suit; be back in a minute,” he said, and disappeared down the hallway.

Sophie settled on the floor with her playhouse full of miniature tables and chairs, and plastic Playmobil people. Curtis followed Vicky into the kitchen and sat down at the counter behind the center island, as she cut up vegetables for a salad.

“You’re settled into your apartment?”

“Still in boxes. Furniture comes Friday; I’ll have to take the day off work.”

“Do you think it’s permanent?”

“God, I hope not, but she seems…” he began in reply and was arrested by the memory of her cold stare and business-like tone, the sheer effrontery of her saying so matter-of-factly (and so succinctly), ‘We’ve grown apart. I want to be free to pursue my options. I’d like you to move out.’ She said it with the same voice, the same sense of surety that she had said in college, ‘I think we should move in together.’

“Resolute?” Vicky supplied.

Resolute. There was a word. Determined, unwavering, fixed on a position she was unwilling to discuss. “I don’t know; she won’t talk about it. She just needs her space. I know it’s my fault — all the travel.”

“It comes with your job. She knew that when she married you.”

“I know, but…”

“I never told you, but I’ve always felt she was a little too slick for you, a little too calculating. There’s a reason we never became fast friends.”

“She’s a bit reserved.”

“No, ‘reserved’ is what you say about someone who’s shy or uncomfortable in social settings. I always got the impression (forgive me for saying so) that she was arrogant, that we were never good enough for her.” She filled a bowl with handfuls of lettuce and tomatoes, mushrooms, olives and green onions. “So you think you might reconcile?”

Curtis sighed deeply. “Who knows?”

“She hasn’t found someone else?”

“Linda? No, I don’t think so,” he half laughed, but it wasn’t a mirthful laugh. He just couldn’t imagine his prim, passionless wife might have a secretly passionate life. It would be too out-of-character. “No, not possible.”

“Hmmm.”

There was a long moment of uncomfortable silence as Vicky busied herself at the stove. He regarded her silence as evasion. “Why do you ask?”

Vicky turned toward him and, as though to buy time as she ordered her thoughts, wiped her hands on a towel tucked into the waist of her apron. “Well, maybe it’s not my place to say, but I never thought she sold all those houses through great instinct. I mean — most of her clients were men who were going through divorces. I always thought she was shopping around.”

Elliot came in dressed in sweatshirt, jeans and alpaca slippers. “What’s for dinner?”

The goal of Bass Erickson Asset Management was to devise strategies to preserve and grow excess capital for both individuals and companies. There were three teams within the company, each with different areas of expertise. Elliot and Curtis comprised one of the teams, and eight times a year traveled to potential clients to put on their “dog-and-pony show.” Those they were able to bring into the firm were divvied up among the Associates (the so-called Cubicle Rats), but Curtis and Elliot got an extra signing bonus for each client they brought in. Every third week, they would split up and travel to current clients to present year-to-year results, and discuss the economy and strategies for the upcoming year. The trips were typically two to three days long, and he was usually home on the weekends.

Getting off the flight in Chicago on Tuesday, Curtis waited for Elliot where the gangway exited into the busy terminal. Towing his carry-on and looking disgruntled, Elliot said, “Remind me to remind Carretta why Business Class makes sense; the guy in front of me leaned back so far I couldn’t open my laptop.”

“Mine ran out of juice; there’s no plug in steerage. What’s the schedule?”

“Lemme see,” Elliot said, fishing a crumpled page from his jacket pocket. He shook out the wrinkles and read, “Tomorrow morning, Ontro.” A loudspeaker blared out boarding instructions, and Elliot paused, looking at the ceiling as though personally affronted until the speaker went quiet, then continued. “Tomorrow afternoon, Waveform. Late afternoon — Proctor. Then Thursday it’s a private guy (guy who owns a company called Advanced Battery Technologies); then we go across town for a brief meeting with the new President at 3 C Group, do a late lunch presentation at a law firm — Rheingold, Jacobs, Zoller & Malkovich, and finish with a dinner presentation for a non-profit family foundation — big money. Some fancy restaurant (they’re picking up the bill).”

“You want to go out tonight?”

“I’m too tired,” Elliot yawned. “I’m gonna have a beer, order room service, and get to sleep early.”

The next morning they set out for their presentation to Ontro Industries, walking the three blocks from the hotel. The street bustled with energy and a frenetic hum of people walking and talking, of cars and buses and delivery trucks accelerating and braking, of metal doors being rolled up for the start of another workday. The morning smelled of diesel exhaust, newsprint, doughnuts and cooking oil, and the faint odor of sewage seeping up from manhole covers.

Curtis felt hopeful. He’d slept better in the hotel than he had in his apartment, and he faced a day in which he would play his circumscribed role, confident that he would give a decent presentation, whether or not it brought in new business.

He’d eaten a light breakfast of coffee, a banana and an unbuttered roll filled with thinly sliced ham. He was cognizant of the downfall of a former colleague, Daryl Tucker, whose short stay with the company was hastened by his reluctance to forswear the all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet. Daryl’s preference for greasy sausages, fried potatoes, scrambled eggs and acidic juice had first resulted in a loud fart in the middle of his presentation; the next time his stomach had made such gut wrenching gurgling and wringing sounds that it seemed as if he would be torn apart; and finally he had run out of a presentation to be sick in the bathroom. Curtis wasn’t nearly as nervous, but he wanted to err on the side of caution.

Elliot was animatedly speculating on the up-coming World Series when Curtis’s cell phone rang. He stopped to take the call and when he was done his face had clouded over. “Linda.”

“Judging from that look on your face, it must be bad news.”

They started walking again. “She wants me to transfer money into her account, for Christ’s sakes. She makes as much as I do; she’s sold six houses this year. What does she need more money for?”

“She has expensive tastes,” Elliot observed. “Vicky used to comment on that.”

“Every day I tell my clients to be thrifty, to buy quality over glitz; then I come home to a shrine to ‘designer’ this and ‘designer’ that — stuff she gets tired of in six months, or throws out because it’s no longer ‘in.’ I could clothe all the homeless people in the park on what she throws out in a year! Perfectly good stuff, but it’s no longer trendy. She wouldn’t buy toilet paper if it wasn’t ‘designer.’”

“At least she has a job.”

“You know why she became a realtor? Because I wouldn’t let her buy a BMW. That’s the truth. The Honda was an embarrassment. It’s always about the labels —clothes, cars, shoes, food. Doesn’t matter. We went to a restaurant she just hated, couldn’t stop complaining about it all the way home — the service was slow, the food was mediocre. The next week it’s written up in the Times and she’s bragging she’d been there!”

The thought of supporting her profligate spending, while he was living in an apartment and she was still living in their house, offended his sense of justice. For the past three weeks he’d been on an emotional rollercoaster of disbelief, confusion, betrayal, anger, sadness, and a terrible sense of futility as he saw that so much of what he’d worked to achieve over the past decade had come to ruin. He had pleaded his case to deaf ears, had willingly taken the blame for their estrangement, had promised to work harder to spend more time at home, and yet she had coldly insisted he move out. “I don’t want to hear it,” she’d said. “I don’t even know who you are anymore. I need some time alone to think this through.” Time alone? Isn’t that just what she’d been complaining about — that he was gone too much for work, he spent too much time at the neighbors, and he wasn’t engaged when he was home? He now understood that his safe world of easy routine and pleasant expectations had been based on erroneous assumptions. He had assumed she still loved him. He had assumed they would grow old, each content in the other’s company. He had always assumed he would be a daily part of his son’s life (except when at work or traveling on business). He was, he admitted, less attentive than he might have been. He could have been a better husband, a better father, but it wasn’t for lack of desire or commitment that he had fallen short. Up until now he had felt confusion, even guilt for his part in the failed marriage. But this call, in its emotionless, cold, business-like tenor, left him feeling belligerent.

“You notice,” he added, as they rotated through the revolving door 30 floors beneath Ontro, “she’s the only realtor in that office who doesn’t wear the official jacket. She refuses. She always goes to work with her Tiffany earrings, Jimmy Choo shoes and Louie Vuitton bag. Says she has to appear on the same level as her clientele.”

“She has sold a lot of houses,” Elliot reminded him.

“Yeah, but…”

“If it helps her make a sale, what the hell?”

“Yeah, but…” He wanted to come up with a clever rejoinder, but he had nothing. The proof was in the pudding; she did make the sales. But she did not understand value.

That day and the next went by in a blur:

Standing at the end of the one boardroom or dining table after another, facing eight to ten seemingly bored or hostile faces, he would launch into his spiel and drone on with no more sense of reality than if he were in a dream. His mind was elsewhere. All he had to do was hit the bullet points:

• “Bass Erickson has many facets to match the profiles of each of our clients, and today we’d like to tell you about two strategies we can offer that we think could fit your needs. In a minute you’ll hear about bonds from by colleague, Elliot Fine.”

• “In this uncertain economy, preserving capital is paramount to the health of your business. Many companies are foregoing capital expenditure and reducing debt. Others are buying back their own stock at historically low prices. But the questions are: 1. How do you preserve your capital? And, 2. Can you still put your cash reserves to work?”

• “My role is to identify companies with impeccable financials, companies that have momentum and offer high returns…”

• “Let’s look at a real-world scenario.” Here he would click on his computer to project a graph onto a screen. “First, we look for the best companies, not necessarily the best known. Let’s take Potash Corporation, for example. What is potash? It’s not sexy. It’s not a flying car or a cell phone that records TV programs, or anything so exotic — it’s fertilizer. You can see from this chart that at the beginning of 2008….”

And so it went, one company to the next. After each presentation he yielded to Elliot, who gave a presentation on bonds. It may have been dry to some people, but he found an element of excitement in trying to assess and control the risk, and a sense of accomplishment when he succeeded.
































Chapter 3

Friday September 26, 2008


He answered the door shortly after one o’clock, his mouth full of tuna fish sandwich, and gestured the movers into the room. For the next half hour they bustled in and out, bringing in the furniture: a night stand, bed and chest of drawers, an area rug, a sofa bed, a leather arm chair, coffee table, lamp table, table lamp, floor lamp, two stools, two folding oak chairs, a gate-leg table, a DVD player, a flat screen TV and a table on which to place it.

When they were gone he kicked off his shoes, poured himself a Scotch and water, and walked around his living room. The apartment no longer seemed so stark, nor as spacious, but it did seem more like a home. Yet something was missing. He fussed here and there, pushing the chair a few inches, angling the coffee table. First he sat on the sofa, testing its bounce, then the chair. He pulled the coffee table closer and propped his feet on it. It was a nice tableau, but still something was missing. He reached for the remote and turned on the television, surfed through a dozen channels and turned it off, dissatisfied.

Something was definitely missing; he just couldn’t put his finger on what it was. It wasn’t just that this wasn’t his home, that this wasn’t really his chair, his table, his life. He understood his old life was gone, for the present, and that these things would make up a part of his new life, but even within that context they just didn’t feel right. There was something much more basic out of alignment, something more in line with (he had no other word for the concept) Feng Shui. It was a mystery.

He walked around the room, cocking his head first to one side, then to the other, trying to puzzle it out. He took off his sweater and threw it haphazardly onto the sofa. That didn’t seem to help.

Later that afternoon he walked two blocks in either direction, scoping out the new neighborhood, and eventually stopped at a small market. He ranged the isles buying groceries and the odds-and-ends of supplies that caught his fancy, and searching for that thing that might tip the balance from unfamiliar to familiar, from his sense of being a visitor to being a resident. He bought some cola and potato chips for Sammy. It wasn’t in Sammy’s best interest, he knew, and his mother would disapprove, but it might offer a small consolation in his transition to this forlorn and unknown territory. He picked up milk, bread, butter, sugar, salt, pepper, a sandwich for dinner, a bottle of Chilean Merlot, two cans of soup and Cherrios. In the magazine isle it occurred to him that perhaps the coffee table needed some magazines to lend the room a lived-in look. He tossed Fortune and Mens Health into the cart, and a Highlights for Sammy. More magazines were offered at the checkout counter. He didn’t know if he should despair or be amused at the tabloid headlines announcing the latest gossip about Katie and Tom, Brad and Angelina, Jennifer and J-Lo and Brittany, as if in using first names they invited their readers to indulge in the fiction that these celebrities were of one’s extended family, and their personal problems and inclinations of concern to the general populace. He passed on these, but did add People, Newsweek, and Time to the cart, and to give his apartment a subtle sense of femininity that it so emphatically lacked, he bought a Good Housekeeping.

Perusing other checkout displays, his gaze settled on refrigerator magnets: smiling carrot people, dancing broccoli, a zucchini with arms & feet, a dried old apple face, a winking banana, a jovial cauliflower. He bought one of each.

The sun was setting as he unloaded the groceries. Then he carried the magazines to the living room and threw them, one-at-a-time onto the coffee table, trying to convey a sense of casual abandon, of haphazard nonchalance. The magazines helped. It was better, but it wasn’t right.

Next he turned on the lamps and stood back to look. The lamps gave a warm glow to the scene. That was much better, but even so it didn’t have the desired effect.

He stood by the windows to take in the whole room. “Sofa, yeah; chair, check; coffee table, yup; lamps; coffee table…oh!”

That’s when he realized the solution. In a minute he had picked out two abstract canvases from the previous tenant and set about hanging them on the walls. When he was done, he nodded to himself. Yes, that would do for now. The once stark room was starting to look like a place he could comfortably inhabit, a place where his son might feel at home.

In the bedroom he rummaged around a couple cardboard boxes and found what he was looking for, a shoebox filled with photos. For the next hour he was lost in reminiscence as he turned over one photo at a time, each a tangible spark that ignited a chain of memories — a time, a place, the stuffed animal Sammy had loved, the silly Halloween costume, Easter, Christmas, the incompetent waitress, the new year’s eve party that had resulted in a horrible hangover, the time they’d left Sammy with her mother and driven up to the mountains for a weekend alone, his brother holding an infant Sammy, a two-year-old Sammy in Superman pajamas, Sammy at three, at five, the look in Linda’s eyes as she had smiled into the camera: no mistaking the look of love. She was so pretty, so aware of her appearance. She had never let herself go the way some women do after they have kids.

He took the selected photos back to the kitchen and laid them on the counter: Sammy at 14-months taking a bath in the kitchen sink; Sammy on the beach in San Diego; three-year-old Sammy and Linda on their knees in front of the Christmas tree; five-year-old Sammy on his paternal grandfather’s shoulders; a naked four-year-old Sammy, with long curly hair, sitting in a stream. And all at once the magnitude of his loss hit him and tears coursed down his cheeks. He took a deep, shaky breath, and quietly stuck the photos to the refrigerator with the vegetable magnets.



















Chapter 4

Saturday September 27 – Sunday September 28, 2008


Linda was supposed to deliver Sammy at 9 a.m. and Curtis rose early to get ready. He showered, dressed, ate breakfast, drank a cup of coffee and paced the room, glancing at his wrist watch every few minutes and walking to the wall of windows to see if he could spot them arriving.

He was as nervous at the prospect of seeing Linda again, as he was at wondering what to do with his son in his new apartment. That she was actually leaving him, that there might be no reconciliation, was just beginning to sink in. And if this change of address were permanent, it would inevitably change his relationship with Sammy. Having him visit on weekends was a poor substitute for being a full-time dad, wasn’t it? Well, maybe not, if you considered how little time he actually spent with his son when he was home. There had been no conscious effort to exclude his wife and son, but the time he spent at home was quiet time, and it was time he mostly spent alone, or with the neighbors. Most of his “free” weekends were spent in his study, going over technical charts and analyzing financial reports on his laptop. An hour or two before sunset, he might wander out to the neighborhood badminton court, play a few games and gossip, while Linda stayed home. At first she didn’t accompany him because she found gossip pointless, and for the past two years she’d spent most weekends between 10:00 and 3:00 p.m. showing houses, while Curtis and Sammy visited with the neighbors.

If this separation were to proceed to divorce and shared custody (god forbid) he would probably only get Sammy on alternating weekends. He would lose track of the myriad changes that go on in a child’s life on a day-to-day basis — the cuts and scrapes, the new toys, new skills, new friends, his progress in school, the tidbits of knowledge that Sammy gleaned from teacher and classmates and TV, all of his subtly changing likes and dislikes.

At ten minutes to 9 in the morning Linda was on the phone in the kitchen of their two-story suburban home. She was pretty and purposeful, with curly blonde hair, cut just above her shoulders, a sculptured face and an athlete’s trim body. She wore negligible makeup, a smart Ralph Lauren skirt in olive-green plaid, and Jimmy Choo shoes. More subtly, but as noteworthy, she was not wearing a wedding ring. From her pinched brow it would have been obvious to anyone that she was displeased.

The kitchen was spotless. The cherry wood cabinets were polished. The stainless steel appliances (stove, dishwasher and refrigerator) gleamed. The sink was empty and the counters were bare of all but two vases of newly cut flowers. Sammy sat at the kitchen island drawing a picture with crayons on a plain sheet of 8X10 paper. He was a small boy, with his mother’s curly blonde hair and blue eyes. Still listening on the phone, Linda whipped the crayon out of Sammy’s hand, held up an index finger in warning, spread out a newspaper under the picture and slapped the crayon down on the island. She turned her back, one hand on her hip, the other holding the phone to her ear, seething with annoyance. Sammy drew three figures with oblong bodies and heads, and sausage-like arms and legs — a mother, and a father holding his son’s twiggy hand. He could draw better, but he was only doodling.

Linda dropped the phone to her side, rolled her eyes to the ceiling and let out a sigh. Then she dialed Curtis.

“Listen, Curt, I can’t drop off Sammy. Jennifer was supposed to show a house this morning but she’s sick, so I have to meet her client at the house. I’m supposed to be there in 20 minutes. There’s no way I can get to your place and back again in that amount of time. I’m going to take Sammy with me. You can pick him up there. Do you have something you can write on? Good. The address is 5210 Belknap Court. It’s in Diamond Heights.”

It took him fifteen minutes to get out of the city, and another twenty to make his way to Belknap Court. It was a fancy suburban neighborhood with big houses set far back on landscaped grounds, the kind of houses he had always aspired to own. That wasn’t happening any time soon. 5210 was vaguely English in style, two stories with tall mullioned windows, a wide lawn with a big magnolia out front, and a horseshoe shaped drive that curved up to a porte cochère, and thence back down to the street. He pulled up under the portico beside a new silver Mercedes SLR roadster and Linda’s white BMW three series.

On the drive over he had run through half a dozen scenarios in his head, reminding himself to act polite, imagining various ways a conversation could play out, quelling the impulse to grovel at her feet and beg to be let back into his house, his life. No, he knew he would not advance his case by groveling, yet there must be something he could do to change her mind. She had always put on a vivacious face in public, but at home she’d been more subdued. Subdued, but not unhappy, he thought. Not miserable. Not depressed. He had missed all the signs. He was clueless.

On the covered brick walkway that led up to the front steps he turned over possible conversational entry points and composed his face. There was a moment, just a moment, when he felt the tears start to well up, then suppressed the emotion and continued up to the large double doors. The right door swung wide. Sammy sprinted out and jumped into his arms with a cry of “Daddy!” Linda stood briefly in the doorway looking down at them, brow furrowed in…what? — Impatience? Disapproval? Annoyance? She pointed her keys toward her car and pressed the button to unlock the doors. “Sammy’s things are in the back seat. I’m with clients. Sammy, you behave yourself; I’ll see you tomorrow night.” Then she closed the door. There would be no conversation this day.

Parked in the basement of the building on Washington Street, Curtis took a box of toys out of the back seat and handed Sammy a miniature green and yellow rolling suitcase and his pillow.

“This is a great old building. It just needed someone with vision to see what it could be. They fixed it up real nice. This street is going to be great. It doesn’t look like much now, but give it a year.”

Upstairs Curtis opened the door and ushered Sammy in. “This is it.”

“I like it, Dad.”

“There’s no yard, like at home, but there’s a park I’ll take you to in a minute. Let’s put your stuff over by the TV.”

“When are you coming back home?”

“I don’t know.” The question about broke his heart. In an effort to spare their son the trauma of a yelling match, they had been restrained, taking the argument into the bedroom and on tense walks around the block. Sammy must have known something wasn’t right, but they hadn’t actually sat down and discussed the reality of the situation with him, and Linda had obviously not explained anything in the ensuing week since his departure. “Your mother doesn’t want me back right now.”

“She doesn’t like you anymore?”

“No, she doesn’t.”

“Do you like her?”

“I love your mom. I think she loves me, too, but she’s mad at me. She doesn’t like me very much, right now.”

“I like you.”

“I like you, too. You’re my favorite.”

That afternoon they went to a Burger King and then to the neighborhood park, two blocks east and one block south of the apartment. It was an old municipal park with picnic tables in the shade of large oak and chestnut trees. At the west end there was a baseball field with a backstop, a dirt infield, and a grass outfield. The middle of the park was designed for the little kids, with two slides, three teeter totters, six swings, a jungle gym, a merry-go-round, and a wooden play-park made to look like a fort with ladders leading up to four look-out towers that were variously connected by a rope bridge, a wooden walkway, a monkey ladder, and an acrylic tube big enough to crawl through (if you were a kid). The east end was divided by a tall privet hedge. A pond and gazebo lay on the northeast corner, while teenagers hung out on the southeast corner at the basketball courts. Sammy’s energy seemed to know no bounds, and Curtis was thoroughly exhausted by the time they arrived back at the apartment around four.

“I need a nap, Scooter; you wore me out.”

“I need a nap, too.”

Curtis kicked off his shoes and flopped down on the bed. Sammy curled up beside him and they fell asleep.

Sometime later Sammy woke up and left the bedroom. He took a wooden car from the box of toys and rolled it on his hands and knees to the end of the area rug. At the edge of the hardwood floor he gave it a push. It raced across the floor until it collided with the wall under the windowsill and overturned. He ran to the car and bending to retrieve it he looked out the window. In the late afternoon shadows he saw three teenagers “tagging” the side of the brick building across the street. The building stood next to a rubbly lot and presented a wall unbroken by windows. Sammy watched with interest as they worked with spray paint, mapping out a mural of odd-shaped letters. He bent for his car again and sent it whizzing across the room, where it came to rest against the stack of canvases next to a box of brushes and half squeezed tubes of paint.

At twilight Curtis came groggily out of the bedroom, into a room aglow in the pink tones of a fading sunset. Sammy stood at the corner where the wall and the windows came together. In his hand he held a paintbrush. Paint was splotched on his hands, on his cheek, in his hair, on his shirt and on the floor. On the wall he had painted a building taller than his head, not unlike the building across the street, a rectangle of burnt sienna with black rectangles for windows. Next to it, about a third as tall, stood a tree in brown and green, and next to the tree stood a figure in black.

“Oh, lord,” Curtis exclaimed, striding across room, grogginess replaced with a jolt of adrenalin. “How am I going to get that out of your hair? Your mother is going to kill me. How am I going to get that off the floor? How am I going to get that off the wall? What were you thinking? You know better than that!”

Sammy’s lower lip stuck out in a pout and his eyes gleamed with tears. “I drawed a pitcher for you,” he said, feeling dejected at his father’s reaction.

“But why on the wall? Why not on paper?”

“I like dwawing big. Like those boys,” he said sniffing and pointed to the taggers, who were almost finished.

“What they’re doing is against the law,” Curtis said, and at that moment an elderly white haired man dressed in a white short-sleeved shirt that seemed to glow in the near darkness, ran out the front door and around the side of the building to confront the taggers. Even at this distance they could hear the old man scream epithets at the boys who took off at a jog. “See, they’re getting in trouble.”

“But why?”

“Because not everyone appreciates their art.”

“I ‘preciate it.”

“Yeah, but you don’t own the building.”

“But you own this house.”

“Well, not exactly.”

Curtis stood back, arms and legs akimbo, appraising his son’s work. “You drew that for me?” Sammy nodded. “Well, it’s not bad. But you aren’t ever to draw on the walls again. Do you understand? It’s not allowed. I really don’t own this house.” Sammy hung his head. His paint spattered arms hung limply at his sides. “Okay, it’s already a mess, so go ahead, paint away. But we have to spread newspapers, so you don’t get any more on the floor. How am I supposed to clean that up? I don’t have paint thinner.”




































Chapter 5

Monday, September 29 – Sunday, October 5, 2008


Barbara opened the door and tossed a paper into his inbox. “Itinerary,” she said in explanation. “You fly into Boise on Saturday. There’s a golf date with Dickson Pauling Associates on Sunday. Then Burditch on Monday morning, Mosaic Chemicals for lunch, and home by 8:45.”

“Crap,” he said, thinking that this was the first weekend he’d had to travel since moving out, and he wouldn’t see Sammy for almost two weeks. That he’d miss his son was of secondary importance, as he knew from experience that he’d be too busy to think much about it while he was gone. But he didn’t want to let Sammy down. He’d already made a mess of his marriage; he was determined not to alienate his son. “Close the door behind you,” he said to Barbara, and picked up the phone.

Linda was just on her way out, Bluetooth earphone in place, when the phone rang. She flipped her blonde hair over her ear and touched the earphone to answer. “Hel-lo,” she said in a bright voice that Curtis barely recognized.

“Linda? Don’t hang up.”

“Why would I hang up?”

Curtis noticed the change of tone immediately, from cheerful and friendly to cold and aloof. “Well, you haven’t wanted to talk lately.”

“Not if we’re going to go over the same old territory.”

“No, I just had to tell you I’ll be out of town this weekend, so I won’t be able to take Sammy.”

“I wondered how long it would take.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing.”

“Can I ask you something?”

“Hold on, I’m backing up.”

“What? Where are you going?”

“To pick up Sammy. First grade lets out at one o’clock.” There was a long pause as Linda backed out of the driveway and started down the tree lined suburban street that had been their neighborhood for the past five years. “Ok, what did you want to ask?”

“Can I take you out to dinner or something, so we can talk?”

“We’re talking now.”

“It’s not the same.”

“I don’t know how to tell you this, but I can’t look at you without feeling angry, and that’s not where I want to go with my life.”

“But I need to know why this is happening. I don’t understand.”

“You don’t understand,” she stated flatly. “That’s the problem. You really don’t get it.”

“No, I don’t.”

“You just called to tell me you were going on a business trip, and you don’t get it.”

“What? Am I missing something here?”

“See, it all comes down to understanding, and you’re clueless. You’re incapable of thinking about anyone but yourself, your own little sphere of needs. I guess I found that part of your boyish charm in college, but you’ve never really grown up, and I’m ready for a more adult relationship.”

“What do you mean by more adult? Give me an example.”

“Did you ask if it’s all right with me if you went on this trip?”

“No, but it’s a business trip.”

“Did you ask if I had anything to do this weekend?”

“Well, no, but…”

“But I do, as it happens. I have two houses to show. Almost all of my on-premise work is confined to the weekends. But you never thought of that, did you?”

“No, I…”

“You never do. You have this big important job and travel all over the country, while I…”

“They’re business trips.”

“…I always have to stay home and take care of the details of your life, paying the bills, taking care of the house, taking care of Sammy. It’s like I’m your friggin’ maid and secretary, and I resent the hell out of it.”

“What am I supposed to do? — Travel is part of my job.”

“Fine, but have you ever asked how it effects me? Have you ever even asked if I might like to go?”

“It’s business,” he said with dismay. How was he supposed to take her on a business trip? Why would she want to go on a business trip? It was all work: quick, crowded commuter flights, one box of a hotel room after another, airport lines, traffic and tight schedules. It wasn’t his idea of fun.

“We never went anywhere together. In all the years since Sammy was born, where did we go? Your parents’, Disneyland. Whooppee!” she cried sarcastically.

“Is it just the travel? Is that what this is all about? Because we can take more trips.”

“That wouldn’t solve anything. That’s just a symptom. The problem is you. You weren’t even involved when you were at home. We were like furniture to you. You’re too self absorbed, too oblivious to my needs. I can’t take it anymore. I just want out. Look, I’m here at the school. The bell’s about to ring.”

“So tell Sammy I’m sorry I can’t see him this weekend.”

“And that’s it?”

“What else should I say?”

The school bell clanged out its raucous signal that First Grade was done for the day. Kids began pouring out the front door.

“You still haven’t asked if it’s ok with me. After all I’ve said.”

“It doesn’t matter if I asked you; I still have to go. I don’t have a choice.”

“Neither do I; I have two houses to show.”

“And?”

“You still don’t get it, do you? You announce you’re going out of town and you expect everyone else to drop what they’re doing and take care of it. But would it ever occur to you that maybe you should be the one to arrange for a baby sitter, so I can go to my work? No, of course not.” Sammy ran up to the car, opened the door, threw his backpack on the floor and jumped in. “It always falls to me. I’m expected to drop everything I’m doing to accommodate your life. Well, I’m damn tired of it and I’m not going to take it anymore.”

“Daddy says ‘damn’ is a bad word,” Sammy said.

“Damn right,” Linda replied. “You want to talk to your father?” She handed him the phone. “Put on your seatbelt.”

“Hi, Dad.”

“Hey, kiddo. How was school?”

“It was ok.”

“What did you learn?”

“Nothin’.”

“You should always learn something new every day; that’s your job. Listen, I called to say I have to go on a business trip this weekend, so we can’t be together.”

“Oh,” Sammy said. It was a simple exclamation, but the tone of his voice declared his disappointment as eloquently as an essay.

“I’ll call on Friday night and we can talk. Ok?”

“Ok.” Again the flat tone conveyed disappointment, betrayal and resignation.

“I’ll try to make it up to you next week. I promise.”

Sammy handed the phone to Linda. She turned it off with her thumb. She’d said all she was going to say.

That morning the sell off started early and accelerated throughout the day. When the final bell sounded, a cheer of relief went up from the offices and cubicles.

A moment later Curtis heard an order shouted: “All Account Managers to the boardroom! Five minutes, people!”

Barbara opened the door and before she could speak he said, “I know, I heard.”

She looked at him queerly. He looked dazed. “Are you okay? I take it the Market had a bad day?”

“It was ugly; down 778 points.”

They assembled in the boardroom, a group of shell-shocked executives in white or blue dress shirts and plain or diagonally striped ties, and Curtis noticed that everyone stood around the boardroom table; no one took a seat; there was too much tension to sit. Erickson paced at the head of the table like a worried general. “Okay, we got hit today. But this is what we get paid to do. This is where we prove our worth to our clients. So where do we stand? What strategies are working?” He searched the faces, the downcast eyes, the hanging heads. “Anyone?” Three hands went up tentatively. “David?”

After the three volunteers had explained their anomalous successes, Erickson called for attention. “Listen up, the rest of you. I want a report on my desk by Wednesday on where you stand for the year and the past month, and what strategies you’re going to employ going forward. And I want to know why. That’s all.”

The managers dispersed amid a lot of grumbling.

Curtis turned to Elliot. “What a disaster.”

“Yup,” Elliot agreed. “Atlas didn’t just shrug; he had a heart attack and dropped the ball.”

Curtis had no sooner sat down than Erickson stepped into his office. It was an uncharacteristic move; Erickson usually summoned his minions to his office. Without his coat, he looked lanky and emaciated. He withdrew a handkerchief, snatched off his glasses and began to clean them. “I have a favor to ask, Curt.”

“Shoot.”


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