|Jul/Aug 2019 Fiction|
Multimedia artwork by Belinda Subraman
You knew him, believe me, if you pay any attention to business. You knew his face and heard his bombast. The face, you wondered about it: Did he have some work done? The bombast, so unusual, even for a CEO; have you forgotten it already? It made headlines, and it entertained you, you can admit it. So you knew him, the way sports fans know the players. Which is to say, you knew the public person. But he managed to keep his breakdown out of the news entirely, without so much as a rumor on social media.
This was unlikely and yet true. His collapse was, to him, profound, but to you and me, quite the opposite—that is, it was not covered, and therefore nothing to be pondered at all. If it is not out there, somehow, it simply isn't real. And so why would we care?
He cracked up, good and messy, but you didn't know. Considering all the attention we paid to the takeover battle—you remember the one I mean, if you just think back a little way—he regarded the public's ignorance about his breakdown to be nothing short of a miracle. He took it as a sign. The sign declared: Get out.
There had been no stories about his uncontrollable shaking, or his weeping, both of which had been witnessed by a few employees and two board members, and which could have ended up in the Wall Street Journal or been hashed about on CNBC. There were no stories about the terror he felt at the mere idea of going into work, how he came to regard even the streets of Manhattan as petrifying. Once, he had adored the crowds, the armies of pedestrians strolling purposefully across the concrete in all directions, only one day suddenly to view them as victims walking to the gas chambers, certain that if he dared to get out of his Town Car, he would be gassed with them. No one knew because he had never expressed that to anyone except his wife, Marigold, and then only vaguely. No one wrote about his recent impotence because Marigold was the only one who knew about that, too. She was 20 years younger than he was, and he worried she would not tolerate the impotence, and yet she was sweet and understanding.
That you did not know these things comforted him. For that much, he was grateful.
But really, how bad do things have to be before you cut your losses? Get out while the company, the press, the Wall Street vultures, still regard you as ruthless, before they know you have completely lost it. That is what he told himself. He had enough money to choke on. What was left to do? Resign. Make a polite, insufficient statement. Take the money and run like hell. He did.
The place they bought in early April, with cash, was a recently remodeled, five-bedroom A-frame in the middle of what he called Nowhere, North Carolina, up in the mountains, in an unincorporated area, near the end of a private road that split off from a state highway, wound its way up the big hill, and which was maintained not by the county but by residents who lived on it, six homes in all, each with an abundance of privacy. Their lot was six acres, most of it unwalkable because it plunged cliff-like down the back side of the hill, and offered what Marigold called "infinity views" from the back deck. At night you could see all the way to Asheville, a little ribbon of twinkling urbanity that reminded you civilization was still out there, if you needed it, but since you didn't, comforted you in the knowledge you were safely distant from it.
The front side of the lot was steep, also, but not so severe. The driveway was 100 yards long, winding down the hill to the mailbox. The property was heavily wooded, and the house was not visible from that side unless you were at the top of the driveway and practically at the front door.
It was at the bottom of his driveway, in the depressed shoulder of the private road right by the mailbox, that he found the body. It was morning, and he was observing his new routine, which was to take their corgi, Stanley, for a walk, down to get the local newspaper—thin and woeful though it was, compared to the New York dailies—then back up to the house. Because of the hill, the return walk was enough exercise for Stanley and him both. It was a beautiful May morning, the giant trees lush, and he was dressed in white linen shorts and a T-shirt that said Harvard, sheepskin-lined moccasins on his feet.
He noticed the body before the dog did. Stanley, who of course required a leash in Manhattan but was allowed to walk free here, was old and was sniffing some gravel and grass as they reached the bottom of the driveway. The body was laid out flat, a man on his stomach. The legs, hairy and exposed from the bottom of the brown canvas shorts to the socks peeking out from the top of some nice hiking boots, were spread-eagled, the left foot twisted and resting on the edge of the road, the right foot in the ditch. There were insects on the legs. The torso was covered by a green linen shirt, the kind you might wear fly-fishing, with long sleeves rolled up to the elbows. There was a small Patagonia day pack still strapped to his back. The pack was a bright, outdoorsy orange color, making the body stand out like a beacon against the grey asphalt and the dark green vines and bushes all around. The head, tilted to the left side, was uncovered, its brown hair matted with blood. The man's mouth was open, his lips making a small O as if expressing mild surprise.
Our man was unsure how to react, having never seen a dead person in all of his 55 years. Stanley the dog barked excitedly and began sniffing the corpse up and down. He yelled at the dog to back away and took his phone out of his shorts pocket. It was a flip-phone—he had never taken to the smart phones everyone used now. He dialed 911 and did his best to describe what he was looking at.
If this sounds somewhat familiar, it is because you remember the dead man and how he died. Austin Davidson, the famous software entrepreneur from Seattle, struck down by a hit-and-run driver while hiking back to his friend's big vacation house at the top of the hill, just two lots past the home where Marigold on this spring morning was as yet unaware, making coffee in her bra and panties, looking out the back window toward Asheville. Davidson's friend was Maximiliano Velez, the venture capitalist from Silicon Valley, whose North Carolina mountain retreat was one of six vacation homes he owned around the world.
Our man, who had two vacation homes of his own, didn't know any of his North Carolina neighbors yet, had no idea the famous Velez had a home just up the road from his, didn't recognize the broken corpse as Davidson, even though they had met once, many years earlier.
The sheriff came, and an ambulance took the body away. The authorities questioned him for 30 minutes while Marigold, now in jeans and a Yankees T-shirt, stood sniffling, her blonde hair in a hasty ponytail, her arms folded, barefoot on the driveway. She had brought a leash, and he had Stanley tethered to it, keeping him close. Some kind of forensics crew worked the area for an hour, then left.
As the news broke in the media, he became nervous because of the fame of the victim and his host. There was intensive coverage on television, in the papers and on the tech blogs, as you recall. News vans down there, by the mailbox. Pictures of his mailbox and the fateful ditch, in the New York Times and on Fox Business. He didn't want to be interviewed or identified as the man who found the body. He had come here to disappear, to get away from all of that, and he feared the spotlight would turn on him, and that people would be asking questions they somehow had not asked when he left New York, such as, Why are you way out here, and what is the matter with you?
Somehow, he was never identified. All the stories said Davidson's body was discovered by "a neighbor." Since the road was private, a dead end at the top of the mountain, and with only six addresses, he figured reporters would sooner or later start knocking on those six doors, trying to figure out who had run down the young billionaire, because who else would be driving on that road?
But someone else had been driving on it, as you know. A 40-year-old man, a good-old boy from Hendersonville who did cable-service installations for a living, had been drunk, gotten lost, and slammed into Davidson on the blind curve, right before midnight. He turned himself in a day later, remember? The right front side of his truck was dented, his headlight busted. We all noted the irony, because Davidson had gotten rich working on streaming software, the technology that had bitten deeply into the business of the cable and satellite companies. One cheeky blog with no class wrote publicly what many people were thinking privately, which was that the cable companies had exacted their revenge on Davidson at last.
The story just took off from there, but it ended any interest the media or the authorities might have had in the neighbors. He realized that, for the first time, a major news cycle had brushed right by him, like a herd of runaway cattle, leaving him untouched, ignored.
He found this somehow exhilarating, liberating, and he began to feel in earnest a peace that had only been hinted at when they first came to the mountains. He began to sleep well, to wake early in the morning feeling refreshed and calm. Two weeks after finding the body, he noticed the shakes were gone, having left him entirely as if he had been exorcised of his toxic notoriety.
He began growing a beard, and Marigold told him she liked it. On Memorial Day weekend, they stayed holed up in the house, cooking, listening to Mozart and Beyonce on the stereo, reading, sitting side by side on a couch by one of the picture windows in the back of the house. She was reading mystery novels, he was on his iPad reading news and stock-market data. By Monday afternoon he had lost all interest in business news, the old obsession slipping away from him abruptly but gently, in a clean, happy way he suspected would be permanent, and he picked up instead one of the paperback novels Marigold had finished, an Elmore Leonard book about a daring young US Marshal during the Depression. He loved it, devoured the pages, rubbed Marigold's bare feet as he read.
That evening, he cooked two small filets on the grill, and she prepared fresh green beans in butter sauce and pepper. At dusk they stood by the railing of the back deck, looking down on the world as it spread out before them, and drank red wine from long-stemmed glasses. Once, he had disdained such views. There was a point, earlier in his career, when he lived in Connecticut and took the train to work. He disliked the countryside, was suspicious of its empty, wasted spaces. He wanted the countryside plowed, filled in with concrete and glass. Shortly after meeting Marigold, he realized Manhattan was the place for him, and he traded his family and Connecticut for Marigold and Tribeca.
Now, standing on his deck in the woods, he understood the vast expanse of emptiness, felt connected to it. He looked at Marigold's blue eyes and her long hair and, with a warm darkness descending over them, he felt aroused. He kissed her, briefly at first, then deeply. She looked at him knowingly and was surprised, pleased.
"Should we get in the hot tub?" she asked. It was right there.
"No," he said, feeling bold and healthy and utterly without anxiety. He lifted her T-shirt over her head, her breasts tumbling out. He kissed her and removed her jeans. She took off his pants and he threw off his shirt.
"Look at you," he said in a whisper.
"Look at you," she said.
He got behind her and they made love. His body was soft, hairy and nothing to look at; hers was something to behold. She had had just a little work done on her hips, stomach, and thighs, a very nice job by the surgeon, but her breasts were the real deal, no one had touched those with a scalpel. They swayed, so lovely, over the edge of the railing as he thrusted. He watched her and felt her, listened to her, let the mountain air wrap around him, was aware of the trees and the lights of Asheville in the distance—all the sensations combined to give him a feeling he had never experienced before. Little details seemed imbued with mystical power, each intensely pleasurable—he could feel the night air on his ass, for example, a warm breeze on his skin, and it made him tingle with life authentic. He thought to himself, this is how Adam and Eve had done it.
They both got loud at the end, but certainly there was no one to see them, and even if one of the neighbors heard, who really gave a damn?
The next day he chopped wood in the front yard, and when he was done at lunchtime, he led Marigold by the hand onto to their big master bed. "I am so hungry now," he said cheerfully after they finished.
That night, he finished the Elmore Leonard novel and picked up another one. In the days after this, he found himself to be a voracious reader; it had always been so, he guessed, but the talent previously was reserved for consuming newspapers, business blogs, and financial reports. Then, information was like shotgun pellets, moving fast in their own arcs, staccato tidbits he gathered, swatted away, roared at, like a predator looking for a meal. Now he could just read, and he marveled at the plots, the dialogue. It was pure pleasure. He began buying novels for his iPad, burning through most of Elmore Leonard's crime novels and then jumping into his Westerns, which he liked even more.
By late July he was like an Olympic athlete when it came to reading, elite in his reading speed and comprehension. He decided it was time to tackle some of the classics. He marveled at Moby Dick, then plunged into Don Quixote.
He was losing weight. The morning walks up and down the driveway had given him strong legs, and his upper body began to show some signs of definition, his muscles responding to wood-chopping and yard work. Marigold noticed, was complimentary. She was looking better also. She hadn't exactly gone crunchy, out here in the mountains, but she was wearing less makeup than she did in New York, was wearing her hair more casually. The mountain air seemed to be good for her skin, and he found her radiantly beautiful, surely one of the prettiest girls who ever moved in Wall Street social circles, especially now that he had rescued her from them. They made love almost every day now.
They had no social life, that is, they did not socialize with other people or make friends. They were content with each other, at home. They drove into Black Mountain or Asheville occasionally to try a few restaurants, and they took in a movie one evening. On their anniversary they stayed at the Biltmore, appreciating its majestic charms, but spent most of the night in their room having sex.
He was reborn to himself, to his wife. That was the summer of the big stock-market correction, something that would have kept him in a froth in his past life. But he didn't watch the market anymore.
In the fall, the mountains exploded with color—oranges, yellows and reds, as beautiful as anything he had ever seen in the Adirondacks. He was surprised how briefly it lasted, however. It seemed he woke up one day and the trees were all bare. North Carolinians liked to brag about their "winter views," and their Realtor had made a big point of mentioning it, saying, "If you think you have nice views now, just wait until all the leaves are gone. You'll see things you didn't know where there."
This proved to be true, but not quite in the way he had expected. The bare trees showed him that they were not as alone, up here, as he thought. He could see houses down in the valley stretching past their driveway, and more of them up the slopes of the opposite mountain. Many of them weren't very nice. Some were only mobile homes. The view from the back deck was even more drastic in its change—houses out there everywhere, dotting the hills, including some directly below them that he had never noticed at all. They looked like real shit holes, too.
He tried not to think about it. He was reading War and Peace on his iPad one morning when Marigold came to him from the shower, naked except for the towel wrapped around her head. She sat down next to him on the couch near their bed. He set down his iPad and put his arm around her. She seemed cheerful enough, but sex wasn't what she had in mind. She put her hands on his shoulders and said, "Hey, you know, we need to get up to New York."
"Well," she said. "We haven't been in quite a while. It would be nice to go. And I just got an email last night from Franny MacIntosh, asking if I was still planning to serve on the committee for the Robin Hood Benefit in May."
"But you're not, are you?" he asked, confused.
"Well, I'd like to," she said. "You know how many years I waited to be invited. And to just blow it off now, that seems a little cold, a little foolish, don't you think?"
The Robin Hood Benefit, just about the biggest charity ball in New York, routinely pulling down more than $50 million in one night each year, all for the poor of Gotham. To be on the committee, he knew, was one of the biggest accomplishments one could ever hope for in that city. It meant you were somebody.
"You don't have to bow and scrape for that crowd anymore," he said.
"They're our friends," she said, giving him an annoyed little push on the shoulder.
"You are my friend," he said.
"Come on, honey, I'm serious."
"I don't ever want to go back there."
"Not ever? Isn't that a little extreme?"
"It is, too," she said, pushing his shoulder again. "Do you mind if I go? Just for a couple days."
"It's okay if you want to," he said, looking at her. "I know you want to serve. You have a good heart."
"I could fly up there for all the meetings, and then come back here between each one. And then in the spring we could go together for the ball."
He laughed. "Count me out of that."
"Really? You won't even go with me for that? What's wrong with you? We're getting Miley Cyrus to sing this year."
He gave her a gentle kiss on the lips. "Miley Cyrus can't offer me this," he said, placing his hand between her legs.
"So true," she said, and she parted her legs slightly. "Don't you forget it, either."
He took the towel from her head. They started on the couch, ended up on the floor. When they were finished, they lay together quietly for a while, then she said, "Do you mind if I take Stanley with me on this trip? I don't really like to be without him."
It was on the second day that Marigold was in New York that he saw the big black dog in the road, right by the mailbox, not far from where he had found rich, dead Austin Davidson in the ditch last spring. It had been a labradoodle or a standard poodle, he guessed, but it was hard to be sure. He felt a chill and zipped up his coat, an olive Patagonia number called the City Storm Parka, which he had bought online for the irony of the name. The dog was exploded across the road, literally broken into pieces, some of it near the mailbox, some in the street, and from the looks of it, some of it in the ditch on the opposite side of the road. Someone had hit this animal at a tremendously high speed; it wasn't possible otherwise, this result. He covered his mouth as he walked around, looking at the various pieces, which despite their condition were well-groomed and hinted at an animal who was well-cared for and loved. He peered into the woods down at the curve, half expecting to see a crashed car in there, because he didn't see how anyone could possibly navigate this road going so fast without crashing, especially after hitting a dog. But there was nothing.
He thought of his own dog fondly and knew someone around here was going to be heartbroken. He also realized he had never met a single neighbor on this road and thought this was one hell of a way to introduce himself. He started at the top, at Velez's house, figuring a prominent venture capitalist might have owned such a fine pet. The house had a façade of river rock and glass, was enormous. No one was home. Probably in Silicon Valley.
The next home was similarly impressive and also empty. He padded down the road, past his mailbox and the mess, and visited each of the three houses below his. These were a little more modest, nothing he would live in. Each had a long driveway, two of them angling uphill, like his, the last one winding but level, not far from the state highway, which was only two lanes and not worthy of being called a highway, really, and which in any case was quiet now. No one answered the door at any of the houses. He didn't see any cars in the driveways, either, though he supposed they could be parked inside the garages, that the occupants were still sleeping. If that was the case, they were heavy sleepers, because he rang the doorbells multiple times and knocked.
He figured it had taken him half an hour to traverse the entire road top to bottom, to walk each of the long driveways, to judge each home empty. He could see his breath but was sweaty from the exercise, unzipped his coat. He walked back to his house, entered the small barn near the garage, and got some trash bags and a shovel. He was part way down the driveway again when he thought about it, turned back to the house, and got some gloves. He did not choose the new North Face Denali ones he had purchased last month online, but instead found an old pair of black leather gloves lined with cashmere he had favored in Manhattan.
He got to the road and began picking up pieces of the dog, placing them gently in the black trash bags. The dog's head had come off, and its collar was lying nearby on the shoulder. It was an expensive-looking red-leather one, but there was no identification tag. He walked in a wide circle, making sure he hadn't overlooked any pieces, then dragged three trash bags into the woods, about 20 yards from his mailbox. He found a small clearing, dug a hole, and buried the dog. He spent the rest of the day reading on his iPad and finished War and Peace by suppertime.
In the morning, Marigold called. "I need to stay a couple more days," she said. "You wouldn't believe how much work they gave me to do."
"Rookie hazing," he said. "You don't have to do it."
"No, no," she said. "It's all right. I want to."
"What if I don't want you to?" he asked.
"Don't be like that. Miss you."
The first snow came to the mountain that afternoon, a light dusting with a thick cloud making the air and everything on the ground a misty white. He was bored and went to bed early.
At about nine the next morning, he heard his laptop ping and noticed that he had an email from Marigold: Honey, I got a message from the property manager for the San Diego condo. He says all the balconies on our side of the building have to be closed down, there is something structurally wrong with them. They've had a couple small tremblors lately, I wonder if that is the reason? I think we should go out there and see for ourselves. We haven't been there forever. Meet me?
For some reason it took him a long time to consider a reply: Why go if we can't even use the balcony? Little tremblors can be precursors to big quakes. Let's stay away and let the building owner deal with it.
Her reply came ten minutes later: I could use the sun. I'll just go for two days, make sure the place is OK. Everyone here is asking about you. Stanley sends love. Me too!
For months, he had ignored his email inbox, but since he was now corresponding with Marigold, he began to browse through the others—there were hundreds of messages, most of them spam, but there were a couple inquiries from the media—Would he appear on Mad Money? Would he help a Wall Street Journal reporter who was working on a book about last year's takeover battle?
No and no. It was too late to respond anyway.
Buried in the inbox he also found a note from Ash Bickle, the recruiter. Bickle had placed him at his last two CEO gigs. He had to be 70 by now, but the old schemer was still at it. When are you getting back in the game? the note asked. I'm sure you're enjoying your break but good Lord man, the opportunities. I know you're a bit tired of Manhattan, so let me tell you something, there is one hell of a mess up in Rochester and you'd be perfect to save their asses. The board has authorized me to reach out to you. Why don't you answer your phone? Your voice mail box is full. Call me.
That was in June. He found three more notes from Bickle, each shorter than the last. The most recent one, from three weeks ago, said simply, Are you dead or something? Rochester is over as you know but let me tell you about Detroit. Respond soonest.
He thought, Rochester? Detroit? He did a mass deletion of his entire inbox.
He pulled out his cell phone and saw that he had ten voice mails, the maximum, apparently. He listened to all of them: more of the same—media calls, a few messages from old neighbors. The most recent was recorded in May. The oldest one was from late April, from Bickle, pitching Rochester to him. He deleted each message as he went.
His phone kept a log of missed calls and he looked at that, too. The list seemed to be several-hundred calls long. He didn't remember the cell ringing once in North Carolina before Marigold called yesterday. He must have had the phone in do-not-disturb mode all year. Something like that. The numbers with caller ID were mostly familiar to him—Bickle was in there 20, maybe 30 times. His attorney had called a few times over the summer. One recent miss said "SEC" and he wondered what that was about.
A few days later Marigold called. She was back in New York. "It's crazy, this committee," she said. "But so fun. I had to come back—they have me working on the auction items."
"What's the situation in San Diego?"
"Oh, Lord, what a disappointment. They're working on the balconies already, but the building is not what it once was, let me tell you. We should sell our unit. Beth took me up to La Jolla before I left, and there's a beach house there I want you to come see. Maybe we could go there for Thanksgiving."
"I'm okay with selling, but La Jolla is not tempting," he said.
"Well, in any case, everyone here is asking about you. They keep telling me about jobs you would be perfect for. Santonio Marshal, you remember him from Goldman, he said you could even be CEO of the Robin Hood Foundation. They're looking for someone, you know."
"Why would I do that?"
"Santonio said he bets you're at a fork in the road in your life and that what you really need is to start a charity or run a big nonprofit. Something that would be more fulfilling. He said lots of people like you burn out on the game but want to give back, to use their skills for the public good instead of shareholders. I told him I didn't know but you sure did seem burned out on the game."
"Santonio is still at Goldman, yes?"
He just laughed.
"Well, you don't have to be so cynical about it."
"I'm not cynical. I'm the opposite. Hadn't you noticed the change?"
"Well, yes, but it wouldn't hurt you to visit. Everyone is asking about you."
"When are you coming back?"
"I think I need a few more days up here. I miss you like crazy. Stanley misses you, too. You should see him in his little carry-on crate at the airports. He's so cute."
If you remember our man from the speeches and the talk shows, you remember the granite jaw and the slicked-back hair, which may have been dyed. Beneath that jaw he was getting a little jowly, and his cheeks were a little fleshy, too, which he owed to his love of rich food. The stress of life gave him some minor bags under his eyes, which the television makeup never quite eradicated. The corners of his eyes didn't look quite right—those were the areas on which he probably had some work done. Maybe he didn't like the result, and that is why he hadn't dealt with the jowls or the cheeks. He looked as likely as any man his age to drop from a coronary, but the jaw and the piercing eyes never aged or degenerated a bit. It was a CEO face.
He had that smile, but it was an angry smile, wasn't it? It ran flat across his face. He had a very broad mouth, the smile thin and tight-lipped, not quite a sneer, but it suggested a man who was hearing what he regarded as a whole lot of hokum from people, and it would have surprised few of us if that mouth had vaulted open and bitten someone like an alligator.
His face had changed. He looked at himself in the mirror that evening, or maybe it was in the morning, before the sun came up. He looked at himself for quite some time. His face was thinner, the fleshy cheeks deflated, which was clear despite his beard, which he had not trimmed recently. The cheekbones poked out from his skin, the cheeks angling in beneath them, then the whiskers fructified in a bramble, taking the lines of his face outward again, obscuring his jaw and upper neck in a rough fur, colored like salt. His mustache was just long enough now that he could not see his lips unless he pushed the hairs sideways, which he did obsessively for a time, studying it in the mirror.
His face, once round or even boxy, seemed longer and thinner now, even his nose seemed thinner. Once he had had a wrestler's neck; now it looked long and straight, like a fence post, and not a thick one. His hair was something—he had been skipping haircuts here but had still been slicking it back; it was only since Marigold had been out of town that he stopped doing that. So now it was a puffy, gray-black hat of split-ends, covering his ears, touching his collar. He thought with bemusement that his mop looked suitable for a symphony conductor or maybe a Bee-Gees reunion.
Most bewildering to him were his eyes. Between you and me, they were unchanged—the same intense, light-blue color, a little squinty—but he was puzzled by them, as if he had not seen them before or didn't recognize them. Maybe they looked different because the bags under his eyes were gone now. He was not a hunter, but he thought they looked like hunter's eyes, and not the kind of hunter who carries a rifle with a scope, but an ancient kind who snuck up on his quarry with a rock or a sharp stick. The man in the mirror interested him. He would not want to tangle with that fellow.
His latest novel selection was Dostoevsky's The Idiot, which he read in one sitting except for bathroom breaks. It's ridiculous, I know, but he identified with the protagonist, Myshkin. It takes astonishing narcissism for a corporate executioner like our man to see himself in a character so innocent and beautiful, but it was so. Probably, he was struck by how misunderstood Myshkin was, and since he regarded himself as misunderstood also, he concluded the character's other attributes belonged to him as well. Or perhaps he felt he was becoming Myshkin, having been someone else altogether before, true enough, but now...
In any case, one line in particular from the book burned itself into his brain indelibly: "I almost do not exist now and I know it; God knows what lives in me in place of me."
He was alone on Thanksgiving. Marigold had tried to call him a few times days earlier to tell him, but he was reading Nabokov's Pale Fire, which was so bizarre, so fascinatingly fractured in its structure, and was too engrossed to hear the phone. On Thanksgiving morning, though, he had flipped on the television for a moment, saw a parade going down the middle of Manhattan, and realized what day it was. He checked his computer, and there was a fresh note from Marigold. It said: "Thinking of you today. Love, M."
He was depressed but tried to make the best of it. Reading all those Russian novelists lately made him interested in the Bible. He had never read any of it. He went to download one online but became paralyzed by all the different translations and study-note options. He spent two hours reading reviews and critiques of the most-used translations, settled on the King James version. He started at the beginning, Genesis 1:1, and just started plowing forward, as he would with a novel.
He got hungry, realized he had done nothing to prepare for a Thanksgiving meal. He rummaged through the kitchen only to realize there was almost no food there at all. Some bread, expired. Cereal, but no milk. Vegetables, gone to liquid. Cake mix, but no sugar. There was an unopened package of American cheese slices, individually wrapped. He ate six of them.
It was barely after five o'clock before it began to get dark. He went out to the deck, stood by the railing. He didn't know the temperature, but it was surely below freezing and a little windy. He looked down the cliffside at all the crappy houses below him, hated the view, missed his wife, felt badly for himself. Having read Genesis today, he thought of the account of Adam and Eve and remembered how, even though he had never read Genesis before, didn't actually know the story at all, he had thought about Adam and Eve, whatever version of them his unlettered mind had conjured, when he was giving his best to Marigold out here, last Memorial Day. It seemed so presumptuous now.
He felt a gloom come over him, or more exactly, well up from within him, like it was already there, waiting for its time. He might have jumped, he was so disappointed, by what he couldn't say with precision. Instead of jumping, he took off his shirt, then his pants and his underwear, and, thinking of Marigold, got himself hard, masturbated through the horizontal cable guards on the railing and spilled his semen into the dark expanse, where it fell, he supposed, as if from an airplane, down, down, buffeted and battered by the air currents, breaking up into little droplets and gooey wisps, landing scattered at last far below in the woods, or on those houses down there that he did not like, fertilizing nothing, begetting no one.
Then he was very cold and climbed into the hot tub to get warm.
What happened next surprised him. He woke up in the morning with a new sense of ambition. He felt energetic, not completely unlike he felt last spring when he began to get better, when he felt revitalized by being away from New York. The feeling was similar, except now the energy was pushing him toward New York.
He tried to call Marigold but couldn't reach her. He paced, didn't want to sit and read. He grabbed his laptop and composed an email to Bickle: Old friend, you can't blame me for not getting off my ass for Rochester or Detroit, but forgive me for not at least saying hello... He thought and thought about the next line. Finally, he typed, I am ready to play. Call me. He felt a little surge of excitement when he hit Send.
Figuring there was nothing else he needed to do, he relaxed a little and went back to the Bible, getting all the way through Exodus before he stopped. Moses fascinated him and—I'm embarrassed for our man to tell you this—he found himself identifying with the great prophet. Not that he thought God was talking to him, mind you, but he did believe he was meant to do something important, perhaps monumentally important. Moses, he noticed, ran away into the wilderness when he was 40, a fugitive, and spent 40 more years after that kicking sheep in the ass, figuring he was finished with the important stuff. But he wasn't finished, you see. The real story was only beginning, the true, monumental work lay ahead. Moses had to go back to Egypt. Our man had to go back... well, you see how this faulty thinking worked.
The mania only grew over the next few days, and he began reading the business blogs and financial-news sites again. He read voraciously, but he realized after a time he was primarily hunting for stories about companies with lousy CEOs, ones on the hot seat, ones who needed to be walked to the exit. Or even companies with already-vacant CEO chairs, that would be okay, too, though honestly it was more exciting to identify a weak or wounded chief, someone who quite possibly might manage to hold on, unless the board knew that our man was back in the game and available. He identified several companies easily which he felt matched those conditions.
He was upset when he received no reply from Bickle after a couple days, so he wrote him again: Friend, I am bristling with energy and ideas. I am ready to earn you one more monster fee, a capstone for your marvelous career. Can be in New York soon. When do you want to meet?
No reply was forthcoming, so he began peppering Bickle with email attachments, forwarding him stories about companies he found intriguing and which, in his view, badly needed a change at the top. These included two of the largest corporations in the world. Perfect for me, he wrote about each one. Board connections?
All of this produced nothing, and so, in a fit of vexation, he dialed Bickle's cell, got voice mail, hung up. Next he called Bickle's office on the West Side and announced himself to the receptionist, as if his name might bring all activity there to a halt and cause Bickle to be hauled out of whatever meeting he might be attending.
"You don't know?" the receptionist said. It was a man with British accent. "Mr. Bickle passed away last month."
This news was troubling, because now he would have to groom another recruiter, or even do some heavy networking of his own. No matter, he had plenty of connections, though he wasn't sure where to start or how best to reach people, since in the past they were always the ones who reached out to him. He opened his laptop and went to his LinkdedIn page—he was not a heavy social-media user, but he definitely remembered creating a profile on that site. Sure enough. But the page contained only his name and his old job title. There was no profile picture, just a blank silhouette where his face should have been. He saw that he had zero connections, and while his notifications held a couple hundred connection requests, all unanswered, there had been none since last year.
He emailed Marigold: Good news, hon. I'm feeling great and hungry to lead. Should be in New York with you in a couple days, just trying to make sure I have the right meetings lined up. Feel free to spread the word. Miss you insanely.
He began pacing again and suddenly felt light-headed. He realized he was starving and that he had still not restocked the kitchen. He poked his head in the refrigerator, the cabinets. The cheese was gone. He had eaten all the cereal, dry, apparently with his hands, because there were no dirty dishes. The only thing in the house was liquor. He decided he would need to go into town immediately, fill the car with groceries, maybe even stop in a restaurant first. That would be good, would help him get his mind off things.
He went to change clothes and caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror as he pulled off his T-shirt. His ribs were sticking out. The pants he selected didn't fit and fell straight to the floor. He had to punch a new hole in one of his belts to get them to stay up.
He made it to the car, an Audi S8 they had purchased here in April, and drove into town, stopped first at McDonald's, where he ate two Big Macs and two orders of fries. In the same shopping center there was an old-fashioned barber shop, and he went in, telling the African-American man who was there alone with his scissors, "You are about to have a whole lot of fun." He got a nice corporate haircut and a shave, with a straight-edge razor, taking off every whisker. The floor was piled with hair. The barber then wrapped his face in a hot towel, which felt to our man better than any salon massage he had ever received. The barber finally splashed a little after shave on him, which burned like hell, but he was pleased with what he saw in the mirror, though, damn, he looked thin. He gave the man a 100 dollar bill and left to get groceries. He had to ask his Audi to direct him to a store; he couldn't remember any.
When he pulled back into the driveway, his stomach was beginning to gurgle and turn over. He managed to get the groceries inside to the kitchen counter, all 300 dollars worth, and checked for emails. There was a note from Marigold. It said only, Seen the WSJ today? and had an angry-face emoji.
No, he hadn't seen it, and began to key in his browser, but suddenly his stomach did a massive flip-flop and he had to run to the bathroom, where he dropped his pants, sat down, and deposited all of his McDonald's lunch, now foul-smelling liquid, into the toilet. Stomach cramps kept him in there for what seemed a long time.
When he was better, he returned to his laptop and went to WSJ.com. Thankfully he had not let his electronic subscription lapse, and he had his username and password autosaved, because he surely would not have remembered it otherwise.
He had no idea what he was looking for, but found it almost immediately. The article was about him.
It was a book excerpt, the editor's note said, about the takeover battle, the book to be released in February. The article was very long, and if you read it, or even part of it, you can understand why our man became so upset as he took it in. The headline read, He Burned the Ships, Kept the Life Raft for Himself. His muscled speed-reading skills abandoned him, he found himself reading sentences, backing up, reading them again in disbelief.
The poison-pill strategy our man deployed had stopped the hostile takeover, the story noted, but at a cost of more than 30,000 jobs, placing it among the Top 10 largest layoffs in U.S. corporate history. Months later, the company was nearly in ruin, with more layoffs likely.
The analysis, so convenient in hindsight, he thought, was this: The raiders, while no heroes, had made a superb offer; the poison pill had been used to thwart it in what could only be described as prideful spite by the CEO. Well, that was bull.
Then it got mean.
To bolster his spin that his turnaround plan was best, Mr. ______ even threw under the bus his most important executive, Eldridge Key, the company's president, who had been recruited with great fanfare from IBM just three years prior, and who had, observers say, begun successfully unraveling the CEO's poor strategies that had made the firm a takeover target to begin with. In a bruising battle that lasted nearly 18 moths start to finish, and which was marked by job losses voluminous enough to fill a baseball stadium—a fight marked by greed and villainous behavior on both sides, not to mention the diminishment of what was once regarded as one of America's great companies— some experts regard the betrayal of Mr. Key by Mr. ________ as the most senseless twist of all, especially since it left the company without a clear successor when Mr. _______ cashed his chips shortly after his pyrrhic victory was won.
"Run-on sentences!" he bellowed to no one. "Who writes this crap? Who would print it?"
Mr. Key, of course, has landed on his feet, now serving as chief executive for the hottest company in the meteoric short-term vacation-rental industry, while Mr. _______ , with his record-shattering retirement fund, keeps a low-profile in North Carolina, and is widely considered a Wall Street pariah.
"Fuck you!" he boomed.
Now he understood why Marigold was so upset. "Don't worry, baby," he muttered under his breath.
Incredibly, the article got worse, and highly personal, going all the way back to his college days, his ladder-climbing years through the Fortune 100, and his track record at his previous two CEO gigs (both brief)—the nut being that each stage was marked by questionable ethical behavior, showboating, vindictive betrayals of friends, misogynistic personnel decisions and—oh, shit!—philandering, which became more brazen over time and is regarded by those who witnessed it as legendary even by corporate New York standards.
He was sputtering invective, had to force himself to go on:
His many affairs cost him one marriage but netted him another in the much younger and vivacious Marigold Smith, a fast-rising star in the city's ad-tech world who had become a regular on New York society pages, noted for dating athletes and politicians before being swept off her feet by Mr. _________.
"Jealous prick!" he fumed.
Not all the affairs, however, can be dismissed as mere personal peccadillos—some had serious business and ethical implications, including one said now to have the attention of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Little more than a year ago, as the takeover battle reached a critical point, sources say Mr. _________ had a fling with one Jessica Somerset, prominent Manhattan Realtor and longtime friend of Ms. Smith, and that their pillow talk included insider information on which Ms. Somerset realized considerable personal benefit, some $350,000 in illicit stock gains. (Editor's note: Ms. Somerset was indicted in U.S. District Court in Manhattan yesterday; her attorneys deny the charges leveled against her. See story, A5.)
Our man vomited on the floor just then, though there was little in his stomach to expel. Not bothering to clean it up, he picked up his cell to call Marigold, but lost his nerve.
Damn that Jessica. She wasn't satisfied to just wet her beak, she had to go for the full meal. And the affair hadn't even been his fault!
Consider, he would beg of you, how it happened. They were looking for an extra apartment, Marigold and him, and Jessica had been taking them on property tours near Central Park for months. Jessica was always brassy, a sexy dresser, and sure, he noticed, but she and Marigold were sorority sisters, for crying out loud. Then that one time, the one time when Marigold couldn't go, and he decided to tour one lousy apartment by himself with Jessica, she had her blouse unbuttoned halfway down her chest, wore an unbelievably tight little pencil skirt, and she was strutting around the apartment, bragging on its views and saying how this was great, wasn't it, and wasn't this feature great and so on. And then she struck this pose against the doorway of the master bedroom and said, "And this apartment is absolutely great for sex. Do you want to know why?"
And he said, "Why?"
And she said, "Because I'm in it right now."
How is he to blame for a come-on like that? The reporter didn't give a flip, didn't bother to get that part. The other stuff, the insider information, well, some things might have been said that day, and on days after that, in his moments of weakness. This is when he was already starting to crack up, for God's sake.
He reread the article a few times, just couldn't believe it. After a couple hours, he screwed up his courage and called Marigold. She didn't answer. He tried three more times with the same result.
Finally, he emailed her: Baby, I'm going to make this right. Don't think I should come to New York just now. Please come home. Say you will.
He didn't remember going to bed but woke up between the sheets at 10:00 AM with the laptop by his face. There was an email from Marigold.
It said: Gonna need some time, bubba. Merry fucking Christmas.
He thought of the attic that day and went upstairs to look. It had fully finished wood flooring, a small round window that looked out the gable. He ditched his Audi in the woods a couple miles down the state highway and walked back, dragged some blankets up there, along with his phone, his laptop, his iPad, and some water bottles and crackers.
Then he realized they could track his phone and online activity, so he turned off his devices and wrapped a blanket around his shoulders, peeking out the little window at the driveway.
On New Year's Day, it was snowing, and as usual the damn house was up in the clouds. Visibility was nil. He took his shit bucket down to the bathroom, flushed the toilet twice, and made his way to the closet for a change of clothes. He looked at himself in the mirror. He was skeletal, his hair a greasy mess. The beard was coming back in nicely. He found a sweater, some fresh jeans, clean socks, and tennis shoes. He punched a new hole in his belt.
He left the house, passing the spoiled groceries in the kitchen and the dried vomit stain by the couch. He didn't put on a coat, just headed down the driveway, stepping carefully in the whiteout. The snow was only a couple inches deep, but it was slippery.
At the bottom of the hill, he saw snow covering the rectangular shapes of a dozen or more daily newspapers, each scattered around the mailbox on the ground. The mailbox was stuffed full, its door open, snow beginning to drift in there, too. He intended to take everything to the house. Read everything. Fire up all his devices. Sit and wait with the front door unlocked. Screw it, he thought. Come and get me.
Then he saw the deer, just opposite him, on the other side of the road, a buck, lying on its side. Our man moaned audibly, blinked, wishing it away, but it was still there. He walked over and was startled to see that it was still alive, its big dark eye looking up at him, its head moving a little. It was a majestic animal, he thought. He couldn't see what was wrong with it—there were no shattered bones that he could see, no blood, no bullet hole, unless it was on his underside.
He stood motionless long enough for the snow to begin to accumulate on his head and beard, to stick to his sweater. The buck raised its head twice and looked at him, unable to get up.
He realized that he would have to kill it, to put it out of its misery. He had no idea how to do it. He didn't own a gun. Maybe there was a big knife in the house, and he could put it in the animal's heart, if he could figure out exactly where it was. He didn't know animals. He knew he had a big shovel in the barn, maybe he should use that on its head. And of course, there was the ax. He had become handy with that. Would he strike it in the neck? His mind was numb.
He turned to go back to the house, his shoulders slumped. It was snowing a little harder now, the cloud that engulfed them a little thicker and whiter. There was no winter view now.
And so he walked, but he was disoriented from hunger and shame and worry, and our man went the wrong direction, into the woods, and disappeared forever.
You didn't know. There was no reason why you would.