A Few Problems
When I arrived at the lounge, six brokers were sitting around a table. They cheerfully made room for me, and one asked,
"He drove me to pick up my car. I think he went home from there."
It was noticeable how much more sensitive some antennae were than others. Jim Maloney was telling Mark McCarthy a story, and neither one seemed to care in the least whether Larsen was present. Walter Lentz, who had asked me the question, was obviously concerned. He, at any rate, recognized that it's a dangerous sign when the boss doesn't join the crowd for drinks. Indeed, he whispered something to his neighbor, Sam Hanks, which I couldn't hear.
Lentz, large and sharp-faced, was an old-style customer's man. His way of selling was always to give the impression that he had inside information. He sometimes sounded like a race track tout with a hot tip. This approach didn't work on the sophisticated. They were the ones who knew that, if he really had obtained inside information, he could go to jail.
Out in Stockport, few of our customers were familiar with the rules of the SEC, and Lentz might possibly have been sent to our branch for that reason. That solved one problem, but it created another. Not many of our staid old ladies wanted to be called by a man with a gravelly voice who told them that they couldn't afford to miss the chance of a lifetime.
Sam Hanks formed, with Lentz, a group of two in the larger group. Hanks, about two thirds the size of Lentz, nevertheless had a much better presence. Dapper and rather handsome, he had a charm which owed much more to an expressive face than to any intellectual gifts. Far from looking as if he had a hot tip, he looked the last man to be told anything of any urgency. That characteristic might have bothered some customers, but most of our old ladies wanted urgent or disturbing news kept from them.
With clients, Hanks had a way of pulling out his pen and writing, in an exquisite hand, on a sheet of the best foolscap. Indeed, with gold pen poised and his elegant head raised, he looked rather distinguished. He might easily have been taken for a college president about to ceremonially sign a document.
When Hanks did begin to write, the situation deteriorated. He could list the stocks and bonds, and even their prices, but his arithmetic invariably failed him. Within minutes, he would be in such a muddle that he had no idea how much stock could be obtained for a given amount of money. This weakness rather pleased the aristocratic old ladies who delighted in having "dear Mr. Hanks" over to tea (without his wife). One of them was heard to say,
"He's the only man of business I've ever had who didn't intimidate me."
Many of Hanks' ladies were better at arithmetic than he, and, together, they generally managed to sort themselves out. The result was that Hanks had a much better turnover than Lentz. On the other hand, it seemed unlikely that the Hanks method would commend itself to David Larsen when he came to understand it fully.
Hanks was sitting two places away on my right. Between us was Bret Halvorson, relaxed and bright-eyed. Any neutral observer would have thought that he was enjoying himself. Yet I remembered something he had once said to me,
"We should go out drinking with our clients, not with each other. When we arrive at the bar in a solid phalanx, it discourages others from joining us."
I was almost sure that Bret would prefer it if the group were broken up so that he could join an entirely different one for drinks. He might have been particularly cheerful because he saw clearly the probable fate of some of his colleagues.
As far as I could guess, Jim Maloney and Mark McCarthy would be terminated first. Larsen would call their clients, telling them that their brokers were no longer with us, and would ask the more important ones to come in to see him to discuss a replacement. If the clients seemed at all disgruntled, Larsen would suggest that the firm had to make sure that all clients, particularly ones as important as themselves, had thoroughly reliable brokers. Somewhere along the line, they'd realize that their man had been fired for alcoholism.
Lentz and Hanks were more difficult cases. In productivity, Lentz stood third from the bottom, not much above Maloney. However, even he had some good clients who might be lost with him. Hanks was the next rung up the ladder of productivity, but the gap in this case was a large one. It was particularly easy to imagine his getting a job a few doors down the street with another major brokerage and moving his old ladies with him. Some would hardly notice or care that their statements came with a different letterhead.
On my left was Wallace Stimson, a smallish man who wasn't as elegant as Hanks, but whose face suggested more strength of character. Despite the fact that we were in fairly close competition for the number two position behind Halvorson, Stimson had always been particularly nice to me. He now said,
"I hope you escaped from the garage without major damage."
"Yes. David went in with me, and they didn't cheat me as badly as they'd been planning to."
Wallace shook his head ruefully. I was sure that it really bothered him that women were so often treated badly by their mechanics.
Stimson, I was sure, would be kept. He was productive, and he caused no trouble. However, he was so conventional, and so much a part of the group, that he wouldn't like the changes that were in the wind. Since his underlying personality was something of a mystery, anything seemed possible. He might, as far as I knew, resign in protest and stroll down the street to Merrill Lynch.
At that moment, Stimson spoke across the curved table to Halvorson, asking him how his golf game was going. I had both men momentarily in my peripheral vision. Stimson had his head forward with eagerness, an anticipatory smile on his face. It wasn't just a polite or perfunctory question. He really wanted to talk with Halvorson about golf. On my right, Halvorson was looking left, also smiling, but in a quite different way. Stimson spoke clearly, and rather loudly. Halvorson couldn't have failed to hear him. But, instead of replying, he called right past Stimson to Jim Maloney, asking,
"Hey Jim, how's your son doing in the Little League?"
I was certain that Halvorson wasn't interested in Maloney junior's batting average. Indeed, when Maloney responded at some length, Bret's attention wandered visibly. I was myself very much puzzled. It was terribly unlike Bret to deliberately snub anyone. It was the sort of thing that could hardly be good for business.
I happened to have a date with Brad that evening, and, since he had met the people concerned, I told him what had happened. Many men would have dismissed such things as trivial, but I had known that Brad wouldn't. He replied,
"Bret must have spent years being nice to people who irritate him. I guess he figures he doesn't have to any more."
"But Stimson's still going to be around. If anything, Bret should be rude to Maloney."
"I guess he doesn't see it that way."
I explained the situation further, but Brad wasn't convinced. He replied,
"People often want to see their stronger competitors fired, and don't mind if the weak sisters are left. They can be more easily managed and pushed around."
From his tone, it was clear that Brad thought this the reason that he himself had been fired so often. However, he had never admitted to me that he had ever been fired, and this wasn't the time to raise the topic.
After a brief pause in the conversation, Brad, stretching himself out in my best chair, remarked,
"By the way, if all these people are going to get fired, it sounds as if there might be some openings."
"I suppose so. Why?"
"I'm thinking of quitting my job. This sounds like an improvement."
I was extremely uneasy. Jackie had as much as said that, if Brad wasn't fired from a job, he'd get bored and quit. Apart from that, he could well make a good stockbroker. There was only a six week training course which would be easy for him. He had already been successful in sales, and, as I told him, that was the critical factor. But, still, I was uneasy in a different way. In the end, I couldn't think of any objection but my real one.
"I think you'd do well, but I don't want to have to compete with someone I'm close to."
"It isn't as competitive as all that, is it? You don't try to steal each other's accounts, do you?"
"Not quite. But there are a lot of little tricks. Why don't you try one of the other firms? Seven national brokerage firms have offices in Stockport, and I bet you could catch on with one of them. Then we could meet for lunch and trade gossip."
Brad wasn't thrilled with the idea, but agreed to apply. I, in turn, said that I would try to get him a job with us if he were turned down elsewhere. Brad left soon afterwards, kissing me without much passion.
I was about to get into bed when there was a call. Expecting it to be Jackie, I answered in a voice I wouldn't have used if I had known that it was my mother.
I hadn't seen Mother in over two years, and it had been more than a year since we'd talked on the phone. That, however, seems to make no difference. Whenever she does call, she makes it sound as if we were in daily communication.
"Addie, honey, there's something I forgot to tell you last time. I'm thinking of getting married."
Since Mother, except in her brief spells of matrimony, is always thinking of getting married, I was sure she had told me, albeit in connection with a different man. I replied affably,
"I think you did mention it."
"But I couldn't have. I just met Harrington two days ago, and it was weeks ago that we talked."
Strange impulses come over me when I talk with my mother, and I simpered,
"My friends and I are always having such trouble finding men. You just seem to have a new beau every time you turn around."
"Oh Addie, you'll have to meet Harrington real soon. He's the cutest thing. Here, I'll put him on the phone."
There was immediately a voice, not on the phone, but very near it. The voice sounded like that of a dockworker who has been unloading whiskey.
"Aw fuck, Val, you caint do that. Jes tell the little lady that I got lots of money and she don't have no cause ta worry about ya."
Mother was beginning to relay the gist of her companion's remark when she giggled suddenly. Then, somewhat lower, as if she were attempting to cover the phone with her hand, I heard,
"Get your hand out of my panties, Harrington, I'm talking with my daughter."
There was a rumbling noise from Harrington which I couldn't make out. There was then another squeal from Mother, very possibly due to the de-pantsing of her admirably formed fifty four year old butt. Finally, she said to me,
"Oh Addie, men are all alike, aren't they?"
Using simple but carefully chosen words which Mother might find simpatico, I attempted to suggest that she be a little more careful about her generalizations. She then switched gears with a suddenness that no one else would be able to match. I was sitting on the side of the bed, and the scream that came over the line actually caused me to fall off it to the floor. I still had the receiver, fortunately some distance from my ear, when she followed up with a savage still-screaming recitative,
"What if he's a bastard and son-of-a-bitch like your father?"
Even from my position on the floor, I could follow Mother's logic. She had just hypothesized that all men are alike. Assuming both that Harrington was a man and that Daddy had been a bastard and s-o-b, it followed that Harrington was one too. There were then noises of violence and a yell of pain from Harrington. Having been convicted in such an eminently reasonable fashion, he was evidently suffering the just consequences. I was about to hang up when Mother came back on and asked with a desperate sincerity that was rather affecting,
"Shall I marry him, Addie?"
Despite what had happened in both the recent and distant past, I wanted to help. As if that were possible! In the end, I replied, rather weakly,
"Harrington doesn't sound at all like Daddy, Mother."
Perhaps it did help. There was no reply for a moment. When it did come, it sounded almost sober.
"What if he dies before I do? He'll leave me money, but there'll be no one to take care of me. Will you take care of me always, Addie?"
That was easy. The idea of anyone actually taking care of Mother was so absurd that no one could be held to it in any court of law or morals. I promised, and she dropped the phone, apparently on the floor. I listened for a minute or two, during which I could hear the sounds of rather primitive love-making. I hung up despite some curiosity. It's not supposed to be good for young women to hear their mother's orgasms.
The next couple of weeks rolled by without any great events. Heston dropped in frequently, and, after we had thoroughly rationalized his portfolio, he began to speculate in a modest way. The sum we put aside for that purpose amounted to only twenty thousand. Happily enough, we managed not to lose any of it. I initiated no purchases in this fund, but Heston would read the papers every day and have his fancy taken by some company or other. He always came in instead of calling, and would want to know what I thought. If I could think of no reason for not buying the stock, we usually bought a hundred shares.
The market was generally rising, and most of the things he bought went up slightly. Heston was satisfied with very small profits, hardly more than were required to cover the round-trip brokerage costs. However, the transaction completed, he would jot down in his notebook a profit of fifty or a hundred dollars. I had the feeling that he pulled that notebook out and showed it to his cronies at their various gathering places.
One of the nice things about the stock market is that almost anything is relevant to it. Heston and I would have long slow talks about things in general, occasionally interspersed with transactions. When we went out for lunch, as we often did, the atmosphere between us was more relaxed than it would have been with a younger man.
At one of these lunches, the conversation turned to Hiram. Heston said,
"He had a rough time in Vietnam. Then he was in Florida, involved in all that drug business. Shot somebody, went to jail for a while. I found him in the Keys, taking people out fishing."
"You're very much concerned about his welfare, aren't you?"
This time, there was only a nod and a mumble, but it was undoubtedly affirmative. I said,
"I'm sure you're doing him a great deal of good. He seems to like sailing the boat, and it must keep him out of trouble."
It was a bit presumptuous to suggest that Hiram would still get into trouble if not gainfully occupied, but it didn't seem to bother Heston. I asked about the summer home they were building in Maine. He replied,
"Well, it'll be nice, an unusual thing. My idea originally, but Hiram's taken it further than I ever would've. Hope I live to see it done."
As we talked on, Heston began to express himself more fully than he ever had before, and on a subject that partially concerned me. Heston wanted to somehow provide for Hiram after he was dead. As he said,
"I could leave him money, but then he might stop working and get back on drugs. He told me that himself. Even if the money's in trust, he'd still get the income."
"You could leave him the boat."
"Still no good. The sloop'll never pay her own way or his. He'd have to sell her."
It turned out that Heston and Hiram had together explored almost every course of action and found it lacking. I remarked,
"Hiram is even more unusual than I realized. I've never known anyone who seems to be so sure that he'd go to the bad if he got his hands on any money. People almost always believe that they'd do just fine if they had more money."
"Spose they do. Haven't had any trouble with money myself. Not for years. Not since I was young and wild."
The idea of a wild young Heston, initially unbelievable, made a sort of sense. Fascinating as it was, there was a more important subject at hand. I shot out,
"What you need is someone who'll do just what you do for Hiram after you're gone. Of course, you look as if you'll live to be a hundred."
It was the first time I had ever seen Heston really laugh. One could imagine the young wild Heston laughing in just that way. Hiram, it turned out, also predicted a long life for Heston.
"He says, with all the drugs he's taken, I'll probably live longer than he does. But I'm seventy and he's thirty eight."
We parted with my agreeing to give the matter some thought. I was sure of only one thing, that I would not volunteer to be Hiram's guardian after Heston was dead.