Chapter 1: Augie Olszewski
My name is Augie Olszewski. Augustine, if you want to be formal, which back then I almost never was. My namesake was a big-time sinner who eventually became a saint. In those days, I’d probably have placed somewhere in the middle of the saint/sinner spectrum.
My life had been like a long, aimless noon hour walk through Downtown Pittsburgh. During one of those walks, on a pleasant April afternoon I found myself on a street corner with no idea of how I’d arrived there, and even less how to get back to the office.
As I contemplated my next move, a cop tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Sir, why are you here?”
“Are you an existentialist, Officer? Or a philosopher, perhaps?” (Being a smart-ass was part of my brand back then.)
The cop squared his shoulders. “One more time, sir. Why. Are. You. Here?”
Had I explained I was lost and asked the cop for directions, I bet he would have done his best to help. People around here always have. Nearly thirty years ago, exploring during my first weekend in th’Burgh, I realized I was lost and stopped at a convenience store to ask directions.
The man at the counter flashed teeth in need of dental attention. “Yunz turn right where the Shell station used to be, then take the Parkway.”
“I’m new around here. Where was the Shell station?”
He pointed. I thanked him and headed that direction, looking for some remnant of a Shell logo and Parkway road signs.
I found neither. Later, I learned that every trace of the station had been razed years earlier. And that there is no road sign for the Parkway. Parkway is the local, collective name for three different interstates.
Finding one’s way in these parts requires a sense of place and the past I’ve yet to acquire.
I am often lost in Pittsburgh.
The cop, clearly irritated I still hadn’t explained why I was there said, “Sir, you must disperse.”
Disperse? Break myself into several parts and send each component in a different direction? Pointing out the impracticality was unlikely to raise the level of discourse. “Why must I...disperse?”
The cop leaned forward. “I don’t have to explain." He took a deep breath. "Well, look. G20’s coming to town. Magnet for troublemakers.”
I’d heard about the G-20, leaders of the world’s largest economies. Odd timing to schedule a confab for September 2009, the first anniversary of a bank collapse that heralded the Great Recession.
Of course, the G-20 weren’t the troublemakers the cop had in mind. He was referring to protestors who’d come to previous G-20 sites for everything from silent vigils to outright disruption. Their way of calling out that group’s exclusion of ninety percent of the rest of the world. Lack of accountability. And other grievances, many of which had no direct connection to economics.
But those meetings had been held in places like London and Washington, D.C. Why meet in Pittsburgh? Ostensibly, because this is a rust-belt town whose economy came back from the devastation of the steel industry. (See? If that armpit-on-the Allegheny can do it then, golly, anyone can.)
I said, “But officer, the G-20 is still months off. Besides, what’s suspicious about what I’m doing?”
The cop nodded toward the bank branch across the street. “Buildings like that are potential targets. For all I know, you could be doing advance reconnaissance for some anarchist group.”
I’m a White guy in late middle age. Chubby, bordering on obese. My short hair—salt with hardly any pepper—is thinning. And that day I wore a navy sport coat, white shirt and rep tie.
Wiggling both index fingers toward myself I said, “Is this what a threat to the social order looks like?”
“Sir, do you understand that you must disperse?”
Glancing in the direction he pointed, I could make out the office tower where I worked. By indirection he’d helped me find direction out.
I walked that way, not realizing the sort of Faustian bargain coming my way. To get something, you have to give something up, right?
CHAPTER 2: Nina Frey
I met Augie Olszewski twenty years ago when I bought a large, old home across the street from his bungalow. It was far more house than one person needed, but a good investment. The neighborhood was popular and close enough to Downtown I could hear explosions from PNC Park on Fireworks Night. Sometimes, Augie and I would watch them from my widow’s walk.
For as long as I’d known Augie, he’d had essentially the same job at the same company. I doubt he ever cracked any of the books I gave him on career advancement. And that wicked sense of humor, what he called “skewering the kabab-worthy—” Augie wasn’t careful about who was around when he said those things. Word certainly would get back to people who could block his career path.
Why would an alpha like me connect with someone like Augie? Unlike most men who seemed interested in me, my intelligence and income didn’t scare Augie away. But I kept breaking up with him. Sometimes, I simply lost patience with his infinite capacity for self-absorption and especially that lament—I am often lost in Pittsburgh.
The first time he said it, I thought of him as soulful. Artistic, even. But it soon grew tiresome. As if the Olszewski brand of angst were unique in the human experience. As if the rest of us never lose our way; always know exactly where we’re headed, consistently arrive at our intended destination.
And that sense of humor— Eventually, I was going to miss it. But back then Augie had only the vaguest notion of the line between playful and hurtful.
What he calls my nun-days, for instance. A few months after Augie and I started seeing each other, I told him that I’d almost been a Sister of the Corporal Works. A painful memory.
Augie said, “Nearly bride of Christ, huh? Hope your ex doesn’t get pissed at me.”
That was the first of our many breakups.
He apologized and we eventually got back together. But Augie still didn’t understand. Still thought it was funny to say things like, You can take the woman out of the convent, but not the convent out of the woman.
My time with the sisters...
There are seven corporal works, but they boil down to one thing: helping people in a practical way. Especially people who can’t help themselves.
Look, I’ve never prayed in the streets. In college I occasionally drank too much, sampled illegal substances and now and then let a boy do things no nun would countenance.
None of that interfered with my studies, though. By senior year, I had the highest GPA of any accounting major. With graduation in sight—maybe out of curiosity, or because I hadn’t been to church since high school—I took a theology class taught by a Corporal Works Sister.
For extra credit, we could tutor underprivileged kids or volunteer at a food pantry. I could’ve done neither and still passed with an A. But even in a theology course, I was all about maximizing grades and worked at both places.
But once I started doing those things, it just felt…good. Was it selfish of me to want that good feeling to never end? After graduation, I signed on as a novice with the sisters. The novitiate was a trial period prior to final vows, a test of one’s suitability for The Life. It was the one test I ever failed.
Like other novices, at the end of my first year I met formally with the order’s president, Sister Anita Carruthers. I wanted badly to impress her, demonstrate that in time I might even succeed her. After a little small-talk, as I anticipated, she asked an open-ended question I could take just about anywhere.
Handing charts and graphs across the desk, using SWOT analysis I outlined the order’s strengths, weakness, opportunities and threats. I offered a three-point plan:
Sister Anita seemed to think for a moment. Then she said, “Some sisters—but fewer, I think, than you imply—are incompetent, nattering, naive. But that’s the nature of community. We understand and tolerate the faults and failings in others, because we know that we have our own faults and failings. We care about our mission. But we also care about each other."
She’d missed the point. I began to explain again.
Sister Anita held up a hand. “Nina, you’re intelligent and focused and I think you want to do the right thing. But some of the other sisters have wondered, and this conversation makes me wonder, too. Maybe our community isn’t a good fit for you. At least, not right now. Maybe you should take a year off. Try something else.”
“You’re throwing me out?”
“No. After some time away, if you still think our community is for you, come back and we’ll talk again.”
As I headed for the exit, Sister Anita said, “That door—every door—swings both ways.”
I slammed it hard on my way out.
Soon, I found my way to grad school. I loved the detail, the competitiveness of securities analysis. The challenge of professional investing. And, yeah. The potential to bank a big paycheck.
MBA in hand, I looked for a job with a mutual fund, one in the socially responsible category. Those portfolios are a particular challenge. It’s hard to find companies that are environmentally friendly, prop up no dictatorships, behave the way good corporate citizens ought. Harder still to make money with them.
And, as Augie used to observe with monotonous regularity, maybe there still was a little of the convent left in me.
I found exactly the job I was looking for. But it wasn’t what I expected.
CHAPTER 3: Augie
Back at my cubicle, I listened to a voice-mail from the CEO’s assistant. Frederick Newcomb wanted to see me at 1:30. But she didn’t give a reason for the F-Bomb’s summons. (F-Bomb—that’s what most of us who’d survived massive staff cuts called the newish boss of bosses.) It was already 1:25. I straightened my tie and grabbed a pad.
Alan Bessler appeared at my cube’s entrance. Dripping wet in a wool suit, which was the way he arrived at work on rainy days, Bessler may have weighed 120 pounds. We’d been friends for years. Like me, his job was writing promotional copy. But Bessler’s passion was acting. While he dreamed of playing Hamlet or Macbeth, his community theater credits consisted solely of such roles as Second Soldier and Man #3.
“Later, Bessler. I gotta go.”
“Indeed? And what occasions your audience with our gracious good lord? Hath hell frozen over? Some chain of events that began with the flapping of butterfly wings?”
“I don’t know, but I don’t want to be late.”
Bessler moved away, bowed at the waist and gestured toward the elevator bank. “Godspeed.”
Give the F-Bomb credit. He did what he was hired to do. When he came aboard midway through the Great Recession, mortgage defaults had gone into the stratosphere and the company was coughing up blood. Newcomb stopped the bleeding. For stockholders, I mean. Most of the folks he’d broomed still hadn’t found new jobs.
“Mr. Newcomb will see you now,” his assistant said.
Lean and tan, the F-Bomb made that Armani suit look even better. As we shook hands he said, “You and I have talked before. In the elevator, right? About the Pirates.”
“Sure, I remember.” No, I didn’t.
He gestured for me to take a chair at a conference table and took the one next to it for himself. “Your boss," the F-Bomb said. "Well, he’s gone.”
“Oh.” Everyone knew the poor schmuck was in trouble. But usually I’d find out with everyone else, via memo.
“He was my speechwriter,” F-Bomb said. “Some of the senior staff say you’ve written for them. I need a speech.”
“Of course, Mr. Newcomb.”
“Fred. I prefer Fred. Especially to the F-Bomb. That look on your face, Augie. Do you think I live in a bubble where nobody tells me shit like that? No matter. Some folks make fun of those who make hard decisions and get things done. People like me. And you too, I’m sure.”
Newcomb was speaking to MBA students at Carnegie-Mellon, a university named for a pair of robber-barons. “Noblesse oblige” is the theme,” he said.
That theme for the guy who axed so many jobs, froze pay raises, cut benefits?
“What would you like to say to them, sir? Fred. Fred, I mean.”
“Sir Fred? Have I been knighted?”
I forced a laugh that I hoped sounded genuine.
He said, “These are the future leaders of business. Which is to say, future leaders of America. With privilege comes responsibility. Blah, blah, blah. Can you fill in the rest?”
“Sure.” Blah-blah is my superpower.
“Send it over before you leave tonight.”
It wouldn’t be hard to write a speech like that, but I’d have to stay way past my usual 4:58 quitting time. No way I’d be able to attend Nina’s celebration.
Co-workers were taking her out for drinks. For years, Nina’s fund had consistently placed in the top quintile of its category—a very big deal in itself. But that quarter, she’d finished number one for the first time.
Nina was delightfully petite and only marginally less trim than the day I met her twenty years earlier. Otherwise, the only signs of aging were reading glasses, a bit of extra makeup and hair that occasionally needed a root treatment.
She was no-nonsense when it came to her job. But on her own time, Nina volunteered to tutor kids in math. And she was very generous. Once, while I was waiting in her dining room, I noticed her tax return on the table. I’m not proud of this, but I took a look. Big charitable contributions.
I called and said, “Sorry, Nina. I can’t make it. I have to work late.”
After I explained, she said, “Have you ever had face-time with a CEO before? Ever worked directly with this guy?”
“Nope. Not in the same ballpark with what you’ve accomplished. But yeah. For me, a historic first.”
“I’m disappointed you can’t be there,” Nina said. “But I understand. Work comes first. We’ll celebrate another time, just the two of us. You know, this could be an opportunity for you.”
I doubt she really thought so. I know I didn’t. But maybe a butterfly actually had flapped its wings. That speech was a bigger opportunity than either of us could have imagined.
CHAPTER 4: Nina
People kept asking how it felt to be top-of-the-heap. Number one. A mistress of the universe.
“Super!” I said. Because if I admitted I felt like crap, they’d ask why. And I had no answer. Colleagues were taking me for drinks after work. Maybe that would make me feel better.
At the bar, from one end of the table my assistant shouted, “Nina! Tell that story about your job interview.”
Forcing a grin, I said, “Again. Really?”
Rhythmic table-pounding and chanting: “Tell! Tell! Tell!”
“Clayton Womack was running the fund. Anybody remember?”
A veteran manager said, “Shoulder-length hair. Love beads. Only light in his office was a lava lamp.”
“That’s the guy. Before the interview, I researched the fund’s holdings. Mostly stuff I expected in a socially responsible portfolio. But there was an oil company.”
Laughs, as I pretended to gasp.
“Also a company with a defense subsidiary. And a firm sued by nine state attorneys general for unethical practices! My goodness. Someone had screwed up and I, a freshly minted MBA, would shine in my interview by pointing it out.
“Everything was going great. Clayton gave me an opening, so to seal the deal I told about those bad-ass companies. He said, ‘Do you have a question?’”
“Do the voice!”
I repeated Clayton’s words, this time in eastern prep-school tones. More laughter.
“So I told about the securities and called them inappropriate.
“Clayton closed his eyes and held his palms to the ceiling, as if meditating. He opened his eyes, picked up a prospectus and pointed to a long, convoluted sentence in the middle. I had to read it three times. But, yeah. Those holdings were allowed.
“Just as I figured I’d blown the interview, Clayton picked up the prospectus and held it at arm’s length with two fingers. ‘This document. Dense type, cheap newsprint. Uninviting.’
“Then, he flourished a color brochure and in this reverential whisper said, “Ecce! Glossy paper, happy people, charts that only head north.
“‘Candidly, Nina, we work very hard to make the sentence I showed you…challenging to understand. As a socially responsible fund, of course we need major exposure to the righteous and upright. But if the fund fails to perform, even the wokest investors will leave us for competitors.’”
My boss, the head of the Investment Division, was sitting across from me. He raised his glass: “And to our firm’s everlasting benefit, Nina got the job. When Clayton retired, she was the obvious choice to replace him. Thus endeth the lesson.”
Not entirely. Near the end of the interview, Clayton asked if I thought that the fund was a good fit for me.
That prospectus sentence and Clayton’s explanation had left me disappointed, disillusioned. But investing was what I’d trained to do, what I wanted to do. And socially responsible funds do help underwrite many companies that actually are socially responsible.
“An excellent fit,” I said, with all the conviction I could muster.
Over the years, I’ve occasionally held my nose to invest in…inappropriate companies.
Because that’s what a priestess of Mammon does.
As we left the bar, I faked the high spirits of those around me. Maybe I should’ve had more than one drink, but at least I was okay to drive.
I stopped for a traffic signal a few blocks from home, where Murray, Forward and Pocusset come together. Augie never had learned to navigate that intersection by car. Lost in Pittsburgh. The thought made me smile.
Minsker’s Stationery was on one corner. Its owner—my neighbor, Chaim Minsker—was about to cross. On foot, I never crossed there. But Chaim, who’d lived in the area all his life, ignored the pedestrian signal’s flashing red hand and made it safely to the other side.
Sales at Chaim’s store had fallen off a cliff a couple of years earlier when a big-box store opened nearby. To compete, Chaim wanted to remodel his place and add electronics. But lenders wouldn't lend when they saw his books.
One night, Augie and I stopped in to buy pens and sticky pads we didn’t need.
“Nina!” he shouted. “I got the money!”
“Rachel and I own the house free and clear.” Chaim handed papers to me.
“I’m getting a mortgage. From Augie’s company,” he said, in a tone implying professional courtesy.
Like a traffic cop, Augie held up a palm and said, “Maybe not a great idea.”
I said, “Look at this balloon payment clause. In two years you have to pay back the full amount.”
Annoyed, Chaim said, “You think I don’t know that? Two years is a long time. Besides, like the mortgage woman said. If I have to, in two years I refinance with a new mortgage.”
He studied the counter for a moment, and then looked back up. “If I don’t do something soon, I’ll lose the business, anyway.”
“But your plan,” I said. “You’re risking your business and your home. They’ve been in your family for three generations, right?”
Chaim laughed. “Lose the business my grandfather started, the house he built? I’d die before I let that happen.”
“God forbid,” I said. “But if something does happen to you before business picks up, what would Rachel and the kids do?”
“I’ll get life insurance,” Chaim said. “Give me some credit. Credit! Get it?”
With contractor delays, the remodeling wasn’t done until the eve of the Great Recession. After that, sales were worse than ever. Chaim’s balloon payment would be due soon.
I watched Chaim cross the street. His bouncy gait had grown labored and his once-solid black beard was going gray.
Augie called on my cell. Once I cleared the intersection, I answered. He was done at work and asked for directions to the bar.
“Thanks, but that’s over now,” I said.
I was still feeling like crap and didn’t want to go to bed that way. “But the two-person celebration. How about now?”
Chapter 5: Augie
I brought over champagne and took two glasses from Nina’s cupboard.
“You go ahead,” she said, pouring milk over cereal—mostly marshmallows in the shape of good-luck symbols. “I need to eat something.”
I put the bottle in her wine fridge, and poured milk into a champagne glass for myself. Clinking the glass to her bowl, I said, “Do we know how to party, or what?”
Nina wiped away a tear.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Do you know what marketing’s doing? They’re already planning a big ad campaign. I run a socially responsible fund, so they want to brand me as The Genius with a Conscience.”
“You think? From now on, consistently good performance won’t be enough. I’m no genius. Last quarter, everything I tried worked. Shooting for the stars again would mean taking risks that could land me at the very bottom.”
Nina pushed away the cereal bowl. “Sorry to be a downer.” With a smile that seemed a little forced, she said, “We were going to celebrate. Meet me upstairs?”
Our bodies rolled and flailed, but Nina’s mind seemed elsewhere. Then, a wild look in her eyes. Panting. Finally, a long moan. I figured it was my turn, but Nina jumped up and left the room.
I threw on my pants and shirt, and grabbed her robe. Nina came out of her study flourishing a yellow pad. “This is it!” she said.
Handing the robe to her, I said, “Maybe you’d want to—”
“Right. Thanks.” As she cinched the belt, Nina noticed me buttoning my shirt. “I’m sorry. We could go back and—”
“The moment has come and gone. So to speak. So what is…it?”
She showed me the pad. A single word in large cursive: LEVERAGE.
“A note for next time we—?”
After snorting a laugh, Nina said, “Leverage is it. I haven’t used the strategy before, but it’s been around forever. The fund borrows money to buy stock. Later, when the stock is worth more, the fund sells it, pays off the loan plus interest, and makes a profit.”
“Suppose the stock price increases less than you expect, or even falls?”
“Then the fund would lose money. Obviously.”
“Leverage—isn’t that like the risk Chaim took when he mortgaged his house? Now his balloon payment is coming due, and his business still is in the toilet.”
Nina took a deep breath. “I’m sad for Chaim. But the situations are different.
The next morning, I had an email from Fred Newcomb.
He liked the speech, and had me write more. Soon I was his regular speechwriter. One of his go-to people, sometimes even for assignments that had no relation to writing. I liked that, even more than the spot-bonus I used to replace my old Focus for a new one. The only downside was lack of time for other things I enjoyed.
Especially, abetting Bessler.
One day, on my way to a Newcomb meeting, Bessler flagged me down. Holding a hard-copy memo from HR—some picayune change to a silly rule—he said he needed a lookout.
Bessler planned to photocopy his butt onto the back of the memo and return it to HR. No way to know it was him unless you also knew—as I did from past collaborations—that Bessler had a star-shaped birthmark.
“No time,” I said.
Bessler looked puzzled. “When shall you, my thrice-gracious lord, again be more yourself?”
Minutes into the meeting, Fred rose and pointed to a banner on a building across the street: Pittsburgh Welcomes the World! Municipal chest-thumping over the city’s selection as G20 host.
There was no connection between that event and the speech topic, but I’d grown accustomed to Fred’s meandering. What would it be this time?
“Where’s the benefit to that G20 cost?” Fred said.
Oh, money. The root of all Newcomb angst. I nodded sadly, as if in total agreement.
“Accommodating presidents and prime ministers, that’s a reasonable expense. But not the cost of security to handle the agitators who follow in their wake. Window-smashers and rock-throwers whose sole aim is to foment class warfare.”
Class warfare? Fred was no conscientious objector. But he did feel aggrieved when the other side fought back.
“What are those people protesting? The way the world works? Do they want us to tear everything down, and replace it with—with what?”
Given my own growing stake in the way the world worked, I’d started to understand Fred’s point of view. Channeling Ayn Rand, I said, “Fred, if not for leaders like you, the financial system would collapse. We’d all be begging in the streets.”
Fred squared his shoulder and cleared his throat. I felt like a toady—was he about to call me one?
“You’ve been reporting directly to me on a de facto basis,” Fred said. “Now, it’s formal.”
I’d be moving to an office a few doors from Fred’s. Getting a huge raise. Eligible for a mind-numbing bonus.
“With that kind of comp,” Fred said, “comes additional accountabilities. You’ll run the department you’re in, and some other managers will report to you.”
Four managers, whose functions I barely understood. “Fred. I don’t know enough to be much help to these people.”
“A senior manager shouldn’t get bogged down in detail. You hire competent people and set an agenda, based on mine. Then hold them accountable. You’ll need to be mentally tough.”
“Fred, I’ll be the most mentally tough son-of-a-bitch you ever saw.”
“You’d better be.”
CHAPTER 6: Nina
Augie and I were meeting for dinner. Pushing open one of the restaurant’s two tall, heavy wooden doors, I stole a glance at Minsker’s across the street. Chaim was methodically tweaking a window display. Though neither that display nor anything else he’d tried over the past couple of years had increased sales.
My work life had gone to hell, too. That morning my boss—the same guy who’d called me an everlasting benefit a few weeks earlier—again used less-cordial language to state the obvious. The first few weeks of my leverage strategy had been a disaster. The market was recovering, but not the stocks I’d chosen.
This restaurant once had been a church, and the host seated me in the apse. Stained-glass windows still lined the walls. But images of saints had been replaced by those of local sports celebrities, and fourteen televisions hung in place of stations of the cross.
A waitress in black shorts and yellow jersey—colors of virtually every Pittsburgh team—said, “Something to drink for yunz? Special on Arn drafts.”
Pittsburghese. Yunz means you, and yunzes is both the plural and possessive. Arn is Iron City, a local beer. I ordered an Arn for Augie and a glass of cabernet for me.
This former church, Chaim, me—we were all lost in Pittsburgh, as Augie might say. Except that he, recreating himself in the image and likeness of Fred Newcomb, was not lost but thriving.
A text from Augie: Running late at work! On my way now. Sorry!
Most TVs showed sports, but one near me was tuned to news. The screen turned black with gold letters—G20: What’s th’Burgh in for?!!!
Footage of men and women at previous G20 sites, signs protesting not only economic injustice, but also pollution, multiple wars, human rights abuses, the slaughter of baby seals. In some cities, police only watched; in others they charged into the crowd.
There were nuns among the protestors—could’ve been me, if things had played out differently. I admired the protestors’ commitment and enthusiasm. Naïve, though, to imagine that what they did would change anything important.
Augie sat down and took a sip of Arn. He pointed to the TV, which had switched to business coverage. “Market’s bouncing back, huh?”
“Think it’s a reversion to the mean?”
I’d explained reversion to the mean before, but who knew Augie was paying attention? Like a grandstanding middle-schooler, he took a notepad from his breast pocket and drew a series of peaks and valleys. “Prices move up and down.”
He drew a line across the midpoints of the peaks and valleys. “But prices eventually return to their long-term mean. When that happens, it’s a reversion to the mean.”
“Right,” I said. “But sometimes markets over-correct, go way above or below their long-term mean.” I took his pen and extended a peak. “After a slump, highs can be much higher. Your career over the last few months, for instance. Also true for big downside moves. Like mine.”
Patting my hand, Augie said, “The quarter’s only half over. You’ll rally. Ever hear of The Immaculate Reception?”
“Play in a Steelers game?”
“Yeah. Just when it looked like it was all over, they pulled out a win with a miracle play.”
“Divine intervention is not a strategy. Let’s talk about something else. What kept you at work tonight?”
Augie rolled his eyes. In a long-suffering tone he said, “Another longer-than-necessary Newcomb meeting. But I have to admit, the view from the C-suite is pretty interesting.
“Oh, and Bessler’s being a pain. I’m his boss, but he still thinks it’s okay to make fun of me in front of other staff.”
As I handed the pen back to Augie, he studied the barrel: Compliments of Minsker’s. Souvenir of a fizzled promotion.
Augie said, “Maybe I shouldn’t tell you this, privacy issues and all. But one of my new reports, the Customer Service manager, wanted to demonstrate his new data base and insisted I give it a try. I was curious about Chaim. To make it look random, I scrolled to the middle of the alphabet and pulled up his account. Late payments almost from the start. No payments at all now, for quite a while. Balloon payment past due. He’s ignored registered letters and won’t talk on the phone.”
“Will he be foreclosed?” I asked.
“Probably. And with that credit history and money tight as it is now, no way will he be able to refinance. Chaim will get a final warning letter soon.”
Augie took a long swig of beer. “Hell, last year I rewrote all the customer service letters. That one, included.”
“Awful,” I said. “Sometimes I wonder if I could’ve talked Chaim out of that mortgage. Been more convincing.”
“Chaim’s a grownup. I feel sorry for the guy. But he took a stupid risk, and this is the logical consequence.”
“The banks took stupid risks,” I said. “They got a government bailout. I just feel so bad for Chaim.”
“You can take the woman out of the convent—”
“Don’t say it,” I said.
Augie changed the subject. He was excited to be going on an executive retreat, as only a person who’d never been to one could be.
But I barely listened for wondering: Who or what was Augie becoming?
CHAPTER 7: Augie
A few days before the retreat, Fred railed again that the six other members of his executive team were no team at all. At the previous gathering, he tried to administer an object lesson. He insisted that Stan, Ann, Larry, Mary, Sean and Don play Risk!, a board game of global domination. Fred, as a sort of detached deity, would observe.
After hours of back-stabbing, triple-crosses and blatant cheating, the game ended at dawn with no winner.
“Exactly as I expected,” Fred said. “I wanted them to see that fighting each other meant that no one could win. This time, I want to show them how working together can pay off.”
A van took us all to Camp Splatt for a game of paintball. One team would consist of the other six executives. The other would be Fred and me. The lopsidedness didn’t appear to surprise them. Why would anything, after that Risk! all-nighter?
On the way to the bunker housing the flag Fred and I would defend, he laid out a strategy. Fred would set up in the bunker and I’d hide in the bushes a few steps away. “If they cooperate, they’ll beat us in a few minutes,” Fred said. “If not, it’ll be because you and I worked together and they didn’t.”
The game no sooner started than Harry, trying to figure out how his paintball gun worked, shot himself in the foot. So he was out. Moments later, Mary shot Stan. An accident, she said. But, given a direct hit to the groin, possibly payback for a dirty trick at the office.
Ann and Sean headed toward our right flank, while Don and Mary approached on the left. Fred and I did a lot of shooting. But no hits. Soon, Fred was caught in a cross-fire, but none of our opponents seemed to know exactly where I was.
From cover, I nailed Don in the backside when he stood up to call Sean a wimp for not being more aggressive. And I got Mary when she emerged from a stand of trees to tell Don he was an asshole.
But Sean and Ann used the distraction to rush Fred.
Fred picked off Ann, but Sean was ready to fire point-blank at the big boss. If he took Fred out, he’d be able to get to the bunker before I could stop him. He’d grab the flag and we’d lose. But I was out of ammo.
I jumped out of the brush and blocked Sean’s shot by taking a paintball in the chest. Fred shot Sean. The other team was eliminated, and we walked unopposed to the other bunker and took their flag.
Just before boarding the van for the return trip, Fred said, “Great teamwork, Augie. You took bullet for me.”
A paintball. But why quibble?
Turning to the others, Fred said, “I’m going to do something I read about once.” He fired a paintball into the ground, dipped his fingers in the paint and dabbed red on each of my cheeks. Then he took a tie-tack with a company logo from his pocket and pinned it on me.
Hemingwayesqe ritual of manhood. Fake medal. The old Augie would’ve had trouble controlling his laughter. But the new one understood he’d passed a test.
And he felt pretty good about that.
During a break in the afternoon business session, Fred took me aside. “We haven’t talked much about what’s going on in your area. Any issues?”
Over the years, Nina had given me lots of career advice. “Issue,” she once said, “is a synonym for problem. You don’t have problems. You have challenges, to which you will rise.”
I said, “Fred, one of my people…well, he’s—a challenge. A challenge to which I intend to rise.”
“What kind of challenge?”
Teamwork was the whole point of that clusterfuck of a paintball game. So I cited lack of teamwork, extensively paraphrasing a book I’d just finished. Nina had given it to me for…my birthday? Yeah, some birthday years ago. I also honed in on poor attitude, channeling a set of CDs on that topic. Another gift from Nina.
As I spoke, it occurred to me that the indictment I was outlining could have applied to me not so long ago. Hypocritical? Not really. Because I’d mended my ways.
“And another thing, Fred—”
“Okay, I get it,” he said. “I rarely involve myself in personnel matters at that level. But you’re new to all this, so I’ll lay it for you. This employee is a pain in the ass. Part of your job is to fix people like this. Or terminate them. Lower-level folks are fungible. Easily replaced. If they take too much of your time or mental bandwidth, you get rid of them and find someone else.”
“Can you fire somebody for being a pain in the ass?”
“That’s the beauty of it. The only way the company can be sued successfully is if you give a reason the employee can argue against. If you say anything at all, be vague. Things aren’t working out. Something like that.”
“This…employee,” I said. “We’ve been friends for a long time.”
Fred shrugged. “And? Remember when you told me you’d be the most mentally tough son-of-a-bitch I ever saw? Prove it. Fire this—what’s the name?
“Fire Alan Bessler.”
CHAPTER 8: Nina
I took advantage of a warm Sunday morning in August to drink iced coffee and read the paper on my widow’s walk. A headline, MARKET INSANITY, got me to thinking about Alan Bessler. Weird, but funny. Called me Nina Colada. Quoted Shakespeare at odd moments.
Admitted himself to a mental facility after Augie fired him.
Telling me about it, Augie said, “When Bessler asked why, I said things hadn’t been working out. That’s all I could say. For legal reasons. Bessler played the guilt card. Reminded me of how far we went back. How hard it would be for someone in his fifties to find another job.”
“But why did you fire him?”
“He’d become a pain in the ass. More important, though, I showed Fred that I can make a hard decision. That look on your face. I thought you’d be proud of me.”
“Proud?” I said. “Nothing personal? You fired your best friend. How much more personal does it get?”
“Whatever. After I gave Bessler the news, he said, “‘Blow, blow, thou winter wind thou art not so unkind as man’s ingratitude.’ He ran right past the security guard waiting to escort him from the building. When the police arrived, Bessler was in the cafeteria, wearing nothing but a ball cap with the corporate logo and ranting about ‘the unkindest cut of all.’”
I found Bessler in the mental facility’s day-room, standing in a patch of sunlight. Script in hand, he addressed the wall, railing about sound, fury, the significance of nothing.
When he paused to scribble a note I applauded. “How are you, Alan?”
“Nina Colada! Making progress, I’m told. Have you also taken up residence here?”
“Alas. You could’ve joined the theater company I started. We’re doing Shakespeare and need a female lead.”
“A theater company?” I said. “Here? Would that make you the Marquis de Sade?”
“Shhh. My therapist might hear. He’s connected enough weird dots.”
“In high school, I memorized Portia’s quality of mercy speech. The quality of mercy is not—”
Bessler held up a palm. “I don’t see you as Portia.” He seemed to think for a moment. “But Ophelia? Maybe Ophelia.”
“From Hamlet? She killed herself. I don’t remember why.”
“Her boyfriend pushed her away, shouting ‘Get thee to a nunn’ry!’ But the Melancholy Dane was nothing like your main squeeze. No waffling to be or not to be shit for old Ole-ZOO-ski. The meeting when he fired my ass? He was very decisive. Even I was impressed.
“Or maybe you could be one of the witches in Macbeth. A guy happy being a thane, until they told him he could rise even higher.”
“Is the food here decent? I could bring you something.”
Bessler pulled a plastic utensil from his pocket. “Is this a dagger I see before me? No. It’s a spork. Actually, Lady Macbeth would be a much better fit. Not so much an inciter as an enabler. All those career-success books and recordings you gave Augie over the years? He finally took all that bullshit to heart. You helped make him the prick he’s become. You must be proud.”
“Please don’t say things like that.”
“But it’s a compliment! Lady Macbeth filled her man with the holy spirit of ambition. But by the end of the play, he’s full-bore ruthless and she feels guilty. Remorse, repentance. Of the two Macbeths, she was the better person.”
“Alan, maybe you can’t help it. But this is upsetting. I’m going now.”
His eyes grew wide. “To…a nunn’ry?” As I hurried to the exit he said, “Aye! Get thee to a nunn’ry! Get thee to a nunn’ry!”
Driving home, I couldn’t stop thinking about what Bessler had said. Was I really Augie’s Lady Macbeth?
I needed a distraction. Nearly home, I passed the movie theater down the block from Minsker’s Stationery. Parking could be hard to get near there, but I found a spot on the street and went in.
It was the same romantic comedy they’d been making for years, the stars washed-out versions of Tracy and Hepburn.
But enough for the diversion I needed. After the show, feeling a little better, I headed back to my car. It was just after 5:00 and, down the block, Chaim was locking up his store. As he turned toward the street I could see a big smile on his face, which made me feel better still. Maybe things had turned around for him.
“Chaim! Do you want a ride home?”
No response. I shouted again, but still he seemed not to hear.
Chaim stopped at the triple intersection of Murray, Forward and Pocusset and stood there, even though the signal told him to WALK. When the signal changed and traffic started to move, he stepped into the street.
A loud air horn blast.
Chaim flew backward through the air and landed on the sidewalk with a sickening thud.
I ran to the spot. His eyes were shut, head twisted at a bizarre angle, beard matted in red. The bus driver stood on the sidewalk beside him, calling 911.
I phoned Rachel, who arrived just after the two EMTs. As flashing red lights bounced off the window of Minsker’s Stationery, Rachel screamed and threw herself over Chaim. The younger EMT gently moved her away so he and his partner could work.
More flashing lights. Two cops climbed out of a cruiser. One directed traffic while the other talked to the driver who, by then, sat on the curb, head in hands.
“The guy saw me coming,” he said. “He saw me. He stepped right in front of me. I couldn’t stop. Just before I hit him, he looked me in the eye and gave a thumbs-up.”
The EMTs loaded Chaim into their vehicle. Rachel, white blouse-front soaked in blood, climbed into the back.
Siren keening, they took away my friend.
CHAPTER 9: Augie
Chaim died almost instantly, so he couldn’t have suffered much. Rachel said that’s what the doctor told her.
Along with the family’s relatives and other friends, Nina and I gathered at the Minsker home. The three sons and their mother stood together near a covered mirror in the living room as they accepted condolences from mourners.
When Nina and I paid our respects, Rachel asked if we could help her with something. She led us into Chaim’s study and shut the door. She took a folder from the desktop, withdrew a sheet of paper and showed it to us.
It was a letter from the mortgage company, my employer. A polite greeting, followed by a really-no-kidding-pay-up-or-else sentence.
"Chaim never told me anything about this letter,” Rachel said. She pointed to the part showing the mortgage balance. “See that?”
From the same folder, she removed a policy on Chaim’s life. “I knew about the mortgage, but not this,” she said. “Look. Here.”
Nina studied that page and a few others. “At least the proceeds are enough to pay off the mortgage. I know that’s not much consolation.”
“Thank you,” Rachel said. “I hoped I was reading that correctly.”
Nina and I left soon after that. Walking back toward our houses, she said, “Chaim killed himself, Augie.”
“You don’t know that for sure.”
“He gets hit by a bus at an intersection where he’d been crossing safely his whole life. The driver said he did it on purpose. And he has a life insurance policy that just happens to pay enough to save his home.”
“If you can put that together, so can the insurance company. But they don’t pay if there’s a suicide, right?”
“I checked the suicide clause in the contract Rachel showed us. No payout for suicide during the first two years. Chaim died a few days after his policy’s second anniversary.”
“Wow. One of my projects a few months ago was rewriting form letters. That foreclosure letter Rachel showed you? I wrote it.”
Nina stopped walking and took my arm. “Are you okay? This wasn’t your fault, you know.”
“Of course not,” I said. “If I hadn’t written that letter, someone else would have.”
“Right. I’ve been feeling kind of…responsible, myself. If I’d thought of the right words, maybe I could’ve convinced Chaim not to take out that mortgage. And he’d still be here. Sometimes I feel like—I don’t know. Like I have blood on my hands.”
“Don’t beat yourself up. Chaim was an adult. He made a bad decision. Foreclosure was a logical consequence. That’s the way the world works.”
Nina stopped and looked me up and down. “Sometimes, I feel like I don’t know you, anymore.”
We walked in silence until reaching the flagstone walk that led to Nina’s front door. I kissed her on the cheek and turned to go to my own home across the street.
Pointing that direction, Nina said, “That sign—your house is for sale?”
“I told the dumbass realtor not to put the sign up, yet. I was going to tell you but, with the funeral and all, I was afraid it would upset you. I have an offer in on a place in Sewickley. Looking to upscale.”
Nina looked puzzled. “We wouldn’t live as close to each other, but that’s not a bad drive. Why would that upset me?”
I stared at the pavement for a moment. “There’s more to it than just moving,” I said, taking both Nina’s hands in mine. “We’ve been together a long time. Had some great times. But things seem to have changed. Maybe it would be best if—”
“If we stop seeing each other? Why?”
I’d grown and Nina hadn’t. And however late in the game, that growth had come because of her prodding over the years. But how could I tell Nina that without hurting her even more? “Things… just aren’t working out between us.”
Nina seemed about to say something. Then she sighed and went into her house.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
© Ted Lietz 2021. All rights reserved.