Hitching a ride, trusting a partner, marrying the same person three times
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I open all the mail the night I get back from Puerto Angel. There’s two months’ worth of letters and packages, so it’s no easy task. It’s not so much deciding what to read as deciding what not to read. The personal letters are easy. The catalogues and magazines have to be sorted out, the contest mailings and penny savers dumped. Finally, there’s all the business stuff: statements, invoices, bills I forgot to pay, dunning notices.
By now it’s 2 a.m. — dawn, Puerto Angel time. Eyes are beginning to dance the tango, and I yawn, tears of animal fatigue. The statement from Dean Witter says I am now worth more than fifty-six million dollars:
Your Active Assets Money Market Funds Plus Cash: $87.17.
That $87.17 has been around for quite some time now.
Then, just below:
Your Portfolio Market Value: $56,072,139.17.
It’s a long story, how I made all that money. I won’t bore you with it. Or should I? I don’t even want to think about those years of dollar obsession that lead to this. Suffice it to say that tonight, after my long journey, I have at last, and not a moment too soon, come into the fortune I have deserved, after all these many years of hard and grueling work. It couldn’t have happened to a better and more deserving fellow, and at a better or more deserving time.
I lie in bed for a while thinking about me and my life and the New Fortune. The journey is over. And no matter how weary I am, I can’t sleep, thinking about all that money — where it came from, how to enjoy it as it should be enjoyed. I have been waiting more than forty years for this, right? Maybe a whole lifetime.
“It will take a lot of work to spend that much money,” I think to myself. How much is it, anyway? If you took fifty-six million beans, and stretched them out end to end, you’d have a mess. Clogging up the streets, gumming up the sewers and the freeways. My new-found fortune is already making me very tired at the same time as it’s keeping me awake.
It’s probably Rich’s fault, if we can blame anyone. My ex-friend Rich was a promoter; no — a promoter squared. Once upon a time he invented a scheme to make a million dollars. “I have this idea for making a million dollars,” he told me. “What we do is apply to the government for a whole passel of television stations.” This was back in 1978, when they were changing all the rules for getting radio and television licenses out of the FCC. It was summer, at the beach, and we had drunk several of my beers. It was a time for loony ideas. “We’ll apply for two or three hundred stations, then sell the idea of building them to the public, in a public offering. We’ll call it ‘Low Power Technology.’ It’ll be the nuts.”
Well, I’m a hard man to convince, so it took me at least five minutes to figure out a way to borrow the necessary loot to finance this scheme. We did it just like he said. We applied to the government for a boat-load of low-power television stations. Then we went with these applications to Denver, to the original dog-and-cat market. We found an underwriter, and got the Securities and Exchange Commission to give us permission to take our corporation public. We issued one hundred million shares of stock. Or was it one trillion? Anyway, it was enough to float the Queen Mary — enough stock to last us two lifetimes. It was the nuts.
I was appointed chairman of the board, Rich was the president, and Jeremy, another friend of mine, became secretary, even though he could barely spell. (The lawyers handled all the spelling, anyway.) Jeremy, on my word, put up as much money as I did; Rich didn’t have any assets. At least not until the offering went public.
The lawyers handled the spelling — and the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the incorporation of Low Power Technology, and something called the “red herring.” That was the prospectus issued to all the would-be stockholders. As far as I could see, all it said was, “Don’t invest in this clunker. It’s a terrible gamble.” Well, it was — but they did it anyway.
Rich was right: this turkey flew. We went to Denver. There was a “due diligence” meeting — where you meet with prospective stockholders. Jeremy and I put on ties for the first time in about fifteen years. The issue went public, and we raised two-and-a-half million dollars. The underwriters, brokers, and lawyers got paid first, and the remaining money went into the corporate account. The three directors got paid in stock; each of us got almost twenty million shares. It was divine proof of the Law of Adam Smith (The Younger). He said that the way to make a fortune in America is not to buy or sell stock on the open market, but to create it out of whole-cloth.
In the first heady days after going public, the stock soared from ten cents to eighteen cents a share. Together, the three of us were worth more than four million dollars. My portfolio became so valuable I figured I should keep it somewhere other than the Kamchatka Vodka cardboard box on the floor behind the desk. I sent my shares off to Dean Witter, had them put with the other stock in my account.
It was a very quiet and proper account before we stuffed this dog-and-cat in it. It was nothing more than a few Old Tired Blue Chips that had been given me years before by my Granny. “For your old age,” she said, frowning at me. I believed her.
My Customers’ Man couldn’t figure it out. Here I was, the Blue Chip Kid, with a few hundred shares, all named “General” (General Motors, General Foods, General Tire and Rubber), and then one day I slug him with 6,596,712 shares of Low Power Technology, which is certainly no general, much less a major, or even a major-minor.
Customers’ Man calls me up to ask me about this new stock. “What’s this crap?” He tends to be very direct.
“It’s my next fortune,” I tell him.
“The hell it is,” he says.
“You’ll see,” I tell him. “You might think of picking up some yourself. It opened at ten cents, and now — if you’ll bother to take a look — it’s almost doubled in value. The symbol is LOPU. As in ‘low-pooh.’ That’s our name for it. Very affectionate,” I tell him.
“We’d better sell,” he says. “At once.”
“Nonsense,” I tell him. “You should climb on board. Rich says it’s going to the sky.”
“Trust me. He’s an old friend of mine. From Texas.”
“What part of Texas?”
“Trust me. It’s going through the ceiling.”
“Do you want to sell it?”
I hear the rattle of certificates, heavy with assets, then a long pause. “You’re right,” he says. “It’s ‘restricted.’ You can’t do squat with it.”
“Why would I even want to?”
“You could paper your walls with it.”
“I’ve just unplugged my hearing aid.”
“Wait a minute. Here — it says you can sell in 1992.”
“That’s a long time from now. But why should I care? It’s going to the moon.”
“June 16, 1992.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to buy some for your own personal account?”
“Listen, do you know how much of this crap is floating around?”
“I don’t want to know. Do you think I should do something?”
“You might consider getting a job.” Customers’ Man always did have a droll sense of humor.
Well, you already know about gods and fate and fleeting fortunes, right? I don’t have to tell you the whole sordid mess, do I? Rich was a genius at finding the assets to get LOPU off and flying. And he was a genius at getting low-price stock-gurus in Colorado fighting with each other to buy into it. He had this dream, and who’s to say whether his dream was any more terrible or wonderful than that of the Golden Fleece, or Martin Luther’s vision in the outhouse, or Freud’s royal road to the unconscious?
Rich also had the ability to bring us chickens deep into the chicken-hut for our necessary plucking. He was so good that the first thing you reached for was not your gun but your checkbook. Even as things got a bit dicey, I recall writing a series of checks to keep the dream alive.
It didn’t — as these things don’t — fizzle all at once. It hung in there, making you think, “Just a little more, all we need is a little more cash — then everything’s going to be all right, right?” So you reach for the checkbook again. And again. Rich called it “adding to the capital base.” That’s what he called it.
Rich had other talents, too. He had tastes that might best be called regal. He was the all-out champeen, as Pogo would say, at garnering money — and he was also the all-out champeen at spending it. How he got rid of almost three million dollars in just over a year beats the hell out of me. It was no less than spectacular.
“What the hell are you doing?” I asked him one day, after getting a financial statement. “Investing in pork bellies?”
“Not a bad idea,” he said, after thinking a few moments.
“The start-up costs are unbelievable,” he told me, after LOPU had become the Darling of the Denver Exchange. “We had to hire a lot more employees just to process all the applications. Labor’s very expensive these days.”
“Revenues aren’t quite living up to expectations,” he said, somewhat later. “We might have to cut back on overhead and expenses.”
“Do whatever you think is right,” I said.
“We might have to cut back on some of the directors’ salaries,” he said.
“Oh . . .” I said. “Do whatever you think is. . . .”
“You wouldn’t believe the costs of this operation,” he said.
“I don’t,” I said.
“Have you heard of Chapter 11?” his attorney said, not long afterward.
“It’s my favorite chapter in The Money Game,” I said. There was a pause. “Does that mean? . . .”
“You got it,” he said. He was a man of few words, just like Customers’ Man.
“How did you take it when they told you about the bankruptcy?” my friends — those few I still had left, those few who hadn’t invested in LOPU — wanted to know.
“No problem,” I said. “I heard about it on a Tuesday. That night, I slept like a baby.”
“Really?” they said. “Like a baby?”
“Right,” I said. “Every hour on the hour I woke up and cried.”
“Can I get a quote?” I ask Customers’ Man, a few weeks later.
“Do you want one from Shakespeare or Milton?” Customers’ Man and I went to college together. He flunked the English courses, I flunked the math. I must say his humor hasn’t improved in the interim.
“Let’s not be funny,” I say. “This is a time to try men’s souls.”
“Let me see what I can pull up on the screen.” He sighs. “There seems to be a problem with the computer,” he says. I sigh.
“What sort of problem?” I ask, pulling at the frayed cuff of my Brooks Brothers shirt — the old one. The oldest one.
“The computer gives a figure of half a cent ASK.”
“Half a cent?” I say. “Sell it. At the market. Jesus, it’s a damn sight better than going to work.”
“You’ve got it wrong,” Customers’ Man tells me. “I just gave you the quote for ASK. That’s what you ask. It doesn’t say anything about what they ask.”
“The ones who are supposed to take this geckoberry off your hands,” he says. “They may be asking something different. They call it BID.”
“Oh. That. Law of Supply and Demand?”
“Yeah,” he says. “That. The bid. . . .” His voice is a bit softer now. And although Customers’ Man and I are not by nature religious, at this juncture we are both, I believe, saying a silent prayer. Praying for the ghost of LOPU. And, as well, sending brief notice to the Gods of the Marketplace, the Divine Heart of Man’s Fortune, telling them we would appreciate any help they might care to send our way.
“There seems to be a problem with the computer,” Customers’ Man says. Evidently, when he punches up LOPU, the machine lifts its shoulders, rolls its eyes, and blinks “Out to Lunch.” It’s a problem these computers always have when they are faced with questions having to do with infinitude.
“We have a phrase for it in the trade,” he says.
“What’s that?” I ask.
“It’s called ‘falling out of bed,’ ” he says.
“Ah,” I say. That’s what we do when we can’t sleep like a baby.
I didn’t have the heart to ask Dean Witter to send back my 6,596,712 shares of LOPU. I didn’t want to bother them. I figured at the time they had troubles enough of their own, what with being bought up by Sears, becoming what the brokers call “Socks ’n’ Stocks.” Besides, what was I going to do with all those certificates? And don’t tell me I could paper my walls with them. I wasn’t interested in looking at the stock anymore, if you want to know the truth. Let Dean Witter paper their bloody walls with them. They have more experience in such things. They probably have more wall space, too.
What I did mostly was to try to be done with it. There were a few 3 a.m. wake-up calls, for the next year or so, during which I would cook Rich over slow and hot and very painful fires. But on the whole, I think I took it very well. I put him and the Denver Stock Exchange and Going Public and what we were now calling “Low Pew” out of my brain, even though the Dean Witter statement kept coming at me to remind me of its existence. There it was, right below General Foods and General Motors and General Tire and General Despair. Our old friend LOPU, riding there at NO BID. It stayed there long after I sold off all the Generals to pay a few attorneys’ bills, the attorneys I hired to try to help me recoup something — anything — from those heady days in Denver.
And that’s where it stood until I got home from Puerto Angel and opened the mail. Letters from old forgotten friends, from old forgotten unfriends and old unforgotten friends. Letters from The Penguin Conservancy and Tomorrow’s Whales Today and Save The Naders. Statements from the electric company and the telephone company and the company company and my friendly Savings And Loan, teetering, always teetering on the edge. And Dean Witter. A formal statement from Mr. Dean Witter, of stock and bond fame. A definitive statement:
Account executive (mine — shared with a few others)
Credits to the account (none)
Credits to the world (none)
Charges against the account (none)
Charges to the hills of Gallipoli (some)
Closing account balance . . .
Your closing account balance . . .
Your [A-hem] Your Closing Account Balance Is . . .
It takes a while for these things to sink in, n’est-ce-pas? They say things, and you don’t listen. You are so used to not listening that you don’t even listen anymore. “Dad, I’m going to marry my roommate,” your youngest says. You’re in there watching Dan Rather, and you didn’t even know he had a roommate — and even worse, you don’t know whether it’s a boy or a girl. “I can’t take this anymore,” your companion-for-life says. You’re muddling through the quotes for the Jacksonville (Florida) Thruway District 2222 A.D. Sinking Fund 8-1/2% Debentures in the Wall Street Journal, and your companion-for-life is out the door, going off — apparently forever — in your car. “They’ve declared war,” the man on the 6 a.m. news says. You’re about to step in the shower, a hot shower, your first of the day, and they decide at that very moment to declare World War III — glasnost or no glasnost. Do you go ahead and shower? With or without balsam shampoo? Is it time to fall to your knees? “You’re now worth fifty-six million dollars,” says Mr. Witter, without a trace of sarcasm, cynicism, or surprise. “That crazy goddamn Rich,” you say. “He always told me he would pull this dog out of the fire. I knew he was a genius. Why in the hell was I so hard on him?”
“Has he really done it?” I say early the next day to Customers’ Man. I know he gets to the office at 6 a.m., Pacific Daylight Time. I’m still on Lower Mexican Mean Time, but we are dealing with a system designed for those who choose to play in Eastern Fast Time. I manage to get on the horn by 6:02.
“Last time I heard, you were in Zipolite Beach, burying ladies in the sand,” he says. He’s being quite chummy — too chummy for me at such an ungodly hour.
“This is no time for idle chit-chat,” I tell him. “My fortune’s at stake. What’s the quote on LOPU?”
“Holy Toledo,” he says. “I’ll get right back to you,” he says.
Fifty-six million tusheronies burning a hole in my pocket. “What am I going to do with it all?” I ask myself. “If it’s for real,” I say to myself. “They wouldn’t make a mistake of that dimension,” I tell myself. Your former ne’er-do-well Brooks Brothers hippie transcendentalist flake capitalist, longtime Master of the Zen Money-Lose, now transformed into a gentleman of substantial means. Butter wouldn’t melt in my mouth.
It’s morning. It’s nice outside. It’s always nice in the morning in this area in springtime. In fact, springtime is probably the best time to be home. Will the neighbors stop being so lorky to me, for a change? Always complaining about my friends coming in and out, parking their ratty cars on the street — as if it were their street, as if it weren’t our street. Well, hell, I’ll build a garage. Hell, I’ll build a twelve-story parking garage. That’ll show them.
The sun has made a particularly nice entrance today — coming up gently over the dark gray-green Fortuna Mountains to the east. There’s a wisp of cloud poised over the sun, a bit of cloud shaped like a finger, maybe a fish, or possibly a silver platter — loaded with silver, floating in the morning turquoise-blue sky. “What a nice time to be alive,” I tell myself, stretching. Will the bastards stop sending their dogs over to relieve themselves on my lawn? I’ll build a fence to keep them out. Hell, I’ll buy a lawn so big they’ll never find it (or me).
Someone on the radio is playing the Deutsche Gramophone version of “The Dances from Terpsichore” — the one with the fluegelhorns and tubas. Remember when we used to drop acid and put “The Dances from Terpsichore” on the stereo, and the musicians — I swear to you — they were all these fat Germans, little fat Germans, with their sousaphones, and their cheeks poofed out, playing to beat the band, shaking and tapping their feet, and we would shake with laughter as the music filled up the room, obligatto. “What the hell am I going to do with all these clams?” I wonder.
I fall to thinking of me a few days before, back when I was . . . well . . . not quite so flush. I think of the Tonameca River, there near Zipolite Beach. Me with Nano and Diego, my two Mexican pals, the ones who work at the school with me, two south-of-the-border beach bums who like to go fishing with me, swimming with me. We like floating belly-down in the Tonameca River, me watching them — god, those mahogany bodies — floating above the stones of the river. Every now and again they’ll stand up, water coursing down pectorals and those powerful thighs, giving me heart failure as they rise up every now and again to get another beer and ogle the women doing their laundry downriver — the women washing their clothes, as they’ve always washed their clothes, through the centuries, topless. These Zapotec women were going topless before tourism was even invented, getting ogled by Nano and Diego.
“They’ll get a kick out of this,” I say to myself. Nano with his dimpled chin and silly ways; Diego with his long sad face and long sad eyes. “¡Qué lástima!” he always says. “I need another beer,” I say. “Qué lástima,” Diego says. It means, “Too bad,” or “What a pity.” He always has that touch of the Existential Blues. “¡Qué lástima!”
Diego and Nano just think I’m another half-assed gringo tourist who likes smoking pot, taking them to town, sitting around with them, drinking cold beer of an evening, eating fish over at Lola’s Cafe. Just another gabacho who comes to town, and drives around with them, talking in my broken Spanish, side-eyeing them — and then one day I go back home, until next year. They’ll be surprised when I turn up in my. . . .
“I’ll get a fancy four-wheeler — so we won’t have to panic every time we try to back up out of the river after our swim,” I think. “I’ll buy one for me, and, hell, I’ll buy one for the school, too.” La Escuela Palma Real sure as hell could use another car. Their Jeep — the one they’ve been using all these years to go buy the food — is such a mess they might as well be pushing it into town every day. A brand new Land Rover for the school, to help out with the kids, the kids Emma has picked up on the streets, in the back alleys, around Oaxaca: Emma the kid-scavenger. Like José, the one she found chained to the rusty bed, because his family didn’t know what to do with him. And Marcellina, with the huge eyes, so cheerful; there’s always something screwy when she tries to speak. Her family turned her out, too.
Then there’s Felipe with muscular dystrophy, and Lisa who goes into spasms, Ramón with the legs so stiff and so straight — frozen, it seems. And the others, dozens of them, all with something wrong, and no one to take care of them. Except Emma.
They could use some transportation there at Escuela Palma Real. She calls it a school — Emma does — but I think it’s something else. I ran across it my first week in town. There I am, on vacation, in a place where there’s no New York Times or television or telephone or computer or rent-a-video or anything to do. So what do I do? I meet Emma at the fresh fruit shop, where I’m eating mango, she’s eating watermelon, and I ask her what she does, and she tells me. It takes two hours. She speaks ravishingly, about the school and the kids. That’s how I fall in with Emma, and her school.
It would be nice for them to have a car that works. And while we’re at it, maybe even a building? Not one of those little palm huts, like they have now, where the sand blows in every time the wind gets stirred up (which is all the time). No, let’s get them a white-washed building with windows and doors — a place where the kids can be tended to, and where they don’t have to sweat all the time, the flies always bothering their eyes. A building, maybe two. And some therapists. “They’ll want to come, because we’ll get them a righteous place to stay, a real sleeping and eating area,” I think. Instead of those hammocks hung on the rickety poles, open to the mosquitoes and all the weirdos coming in from Zipolite Beach. Rooms with real windows, and real screens.
And while we’re at it, we could get them a proper eating place — instead of next to the school garbage dump where you have to hold your nose while you’re trying to eat the beans. We’ll get them a place on the bluff, near the port. And we’ll set up a fund so they can have something besides that old tired-out chicken. We’ll give them something more interesting than bones and beans and potatoes. No more bugs, and the geese making such a racket, chickens flapping up on the dining-room tables, dogs peeing in the beds. We’ll change all that.
We’ll bring the building materials and the new Land Rover down on the boat — which won’t be too show-offy, but it’ll be nice enough. Wood paneling, and showers. Hot showers right there off Zipolite Beach. A couple of decks. Twin screws. Stabilizers. We’ll use it to transport all the supplies from up north. That’s what it’ll be for — it won’t be just for me and my friends. Even with our fifty-six-million smackers, we won’t be off here somewhere, forgetting our friends.
Nano and Diego will love it. Dressed up in their white uniforms, with their new caps, and the gold braid. “Dame cerveza,” I’ll call from my bunk next to the chartroom, calling them up on the speaking tube. “Get me a beer.” “Sí — ¡ya!” they’ll call back, and in an instant, their Mayan eyes so merry, they’ll be there in their snappy white uniforms, gold braid on their caps, uniforms in such sharp contrast to their dark skin — Nano with the round face and mahogany skin; Diego with the long and narrow face, always so mournful.
And later, they’ll loll about above the great warm blue-green waters, in their brilliant white uniforms. Zipolite Beach, with its dark and lovely people, and its birds in the palm trees, the mysterious grackles, those strange black birds, the ones that come so noisily in the morning to make those sounds out of the jungle, the mysterious creatures that might well be responsible for all this. . . .
“Computer,” says Customers’ Man.
“Computer?” I say.
“Yeah, computer,” he says. “There was something wrong with the computer.”
I can hear people yelling and talking behind him, telephones ringing, people making money, losing money, life going on, like it always does. Life going on.
“Goddamn computer,” I say.
“Yeah,” he says.
I’ll say this for him — he went to bat for me. He took it all the way to the top, right up to Mr. Dean or Mr. Witter or perhaps even Mr. Roebuck, if Mr. Roebuck still exists; if he ever existed. If any of us ever existed.
They all said the same thing. They always say the same thing. Even though I am an old and faithful customer who kept a small, neat account for years, one that never attracted flies, and didn’t bother them too much — despite that, they still have the gall to do these heart-robbing things to me with their goddamn computers.
“Sorry,” he says. “I really tried.” He sounds sorry, too. I mean, beyond the commissions and all.
“I couldn’t? . . .” I ask.
“No,” he says.
I have several old blank Dean Witter checks — numbered 103, 104, 105, and so forth — at the back of the drawer, back there next to the old passports and the gnarled spiders.
“I wouldn’t,” he says.
“Ah . . .” I say. “¡Qué Lástima!”
“What did you say?” he says.
“Nothing,” I say. “I’ll talk to you later. Qué Lástima,” I say.
A slightly different version of this article appeared recently in The Fessenden Review (Box 7272, San Diego, CA 92107). Alas, they both end the same.
Lorenzo W. Milam