July 3, 2009

The Courageous Thing To Do

During my last year at Lehman Brothers, I wrote the following short story that appeared in Razorfish, a now defunct literary journal. Please don't think of this as autobiographical, but when I read it today, it speaks volumes about my mindset at the time.
I hold the birthday gift my wife gave me: star-spangled red, white, and blue boxer shorts with the inexplicable picture of a bulldog on the front. Earlier Beth convinced me to model the garment, promising with a wink to chase the kids out of the house. I did as she suggested and stepped upstairs, naked but for the patriotic underwear, and posing like Atlas. That’s when a crowd of our neighbors leaped from behind the living room furniture and yelled, “Surprise!”

Surprise? More like shock—more like a heart attack. My father, who was decidedly blue-collar in his choice of vocation and amusements, used to describe his moments of astonishment by saying, “I could’ve shit.” Suddenly the phrase made sense to me.
Then something on the coffee table caught my eye. It was a pile of wrapped packages waiting to be opened. I left to get dressed and returned to a chorus of birthday congratulations, a cake, and presents. My favorite gift (other than the bulldog underwear, of course) is a bottle of Chinese folk medicine purchased by my best friend, a lawyer who travels to Asia on business. The label has this inscription: Sea Horse Gonads—For Genital Strength and Energy. The accompanying card includes a poem written in his neat cursive script.

Hey there, Gary, you’re over-the-hill.
So we suggest you take this pill.
Sea horse gonads really hit the spot.
They make you amorous (and that means hot).

No need for Viagra with a bottle of these.
You’ll be transformed—more able to please.
Be careful though, Gary, there’s a lot in store.
Don’t hurt yourself, when Beth asks for more.

The guests are gone now and the house is still. I’m forty-five-years old and sitting in the room that serves as my personal study. Life is good, I tell myself (hasn’t the evening been proof of that?) and I repeat the phrase while opening a cedar box in my lap. To the hodgepodge of keepsakes inside, I add my new underwear, when the temptation to relive old memories causes me to search among the items.
There are various awards and certificates, the first baseball I ever knocked out of a little league park, a ten-year old photograph of Beth napping with our three daughters, and several diplomas. A folder, however, causes me to take pause. It contains the product of my earliest aspirations, a nearly forgotten collection of music I composed in high school.
The first piece is a motet. I study it and hear the music in my head. It begins with a tenor solo, Gregorian in simplicity and style, before the other voices emerge like the weave in a tapestry of sound. The words are from Proverbs: With all thy getting get understanding. In the pensive minor chords are occasional hints at resolution, but it builds in a way that fills me with longing. Eager to see how it plays out, I turn to yet another page, but the notation ends unfinished.
Disappointment smacks me head-on. How had I meant the composition to end? Should it, to its final measure, be a melancholy reflection on human understanding? Or might it reach a point of inflection, a magical change from minor to major key that offers a determined ray of hope?
I am still musing over the question, when Beth appears and asks if I’m coming to bed. She leans against the doorjamb, wearing a kimono that she opens to expose her breasts and flat belly. Her real present, she says, is ready for unwrapping. I put the box away, but tuck the folder under my arm and go downstairs. Life is good, I tell myself again, but it’s a personal affirmation rather than a statement of fact. If life is so good, why do I sometimes wish I was dead?


Shadrach, my twelve-year old black lab, wakes me in the morning. He makes a noise that is equal parts woof and a drawn out whine, his endearing attempt to produce human speech. I ignore him, but he lays his head on the edge of my pillow and breathes on my face. Except for his confusion over daylight savings, the dog is an uncanny keeper of time and infinitely more persistent than the best snooze button. I rise, knowing he’ll be on the bed otherwise.
While I put on shorts and running shoes, the dog waits with his head on his paws. He stands as I emerge from the bathroom, and bounds upstairs to the front door. Our house, a six-bedroom Tudor, sits on the Connecticut coast with an unobstructed view of the sea. We cut through the garden past the greenhouse and pool, and run to the beach.
Forty minutes later the sky is still dark, but we’ve been to the marina and back. Beth is in the kitchen now, fixing lunches for our girls. She talks to Shadrach in a way meant for babies and feeds him a slice of lunchmeat. Though I’m perspiring, she kisses me and asks about my run. Her dark hair is wet from her shower, but she’s beautiful. I could stay here forever, even if work wasn’t my alternative.
A limousine, however, arrives just as I finish getting dressed. I holler goodbye to my girls, step into the car, and grasp the folder of music from my satchel. The driver knows I prefer quiet and doesn’t speak. He closes the door behind me, and soon we’re on the narrow road leading to I-95 and the city. While we travel, I study my unfinished motet and decide it should end in a resolute, albeit subdued, manner. I hear the last shining chord, but a logical transition eludes me. Before I can consider options, the phone rings.
It’s Awano, the head of fixed income in Tokyo, and I know what he wants. We’ve talked about little else in two days. A trade I endorsed, one we call the “kitchen sink” deal, has soured. It’s backed by a pool of our old inventory—mortgage derivatives mostly—that we couldn’t unload any other way. Despite its single-A rating, it has lost a boatload of value. From my perspective, however, the deal was a runaway success. We disposed of the paper before the problems arose.
Awano wants to know where the deal is trading and I tell him we had a bid of 80 for it yesterday, but today, who knows?
“80?” he says. “Shinwa can’t take that kind of loss.”
“Well, it’s not our fault.” I allow exasperation to seep into my voice. “You got to know how to tread water before jumping into the deep end.”
“But can’t we cut him a break? The guy’s been a good client, and he didn’t understand the trade. Hell, listen to the marketing material: A duration-neutral combination of IOs, POs, inverses, and Treasury options. I’m not sure I understand it, either.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Can’t we buy him out at par?”
I allow a moment of silence to pass and let the man sweat in his own juices. “Sure, Awano. And let’s take the difference out of your bonus.”
My words have their intended effect. The man sounds beaten and offers a last argument that comes out like a whine. “But he’s threatening to take legal action,” he says.
“I don’t give a damn. It’s your job to keep that from happening. So don’t call me again, until you’ve fixed the problem.”
I hang up the phone and take a deep breath. My driver doesn’t look back or even glance in the rearview mirror. Awano, I tell myself, is a smart man. There are a dozen things he can do. (I know, because for three years I worked in Tokyo and was a party to them all). He might, for example, exchange the paper for a Cayman Island trust, hide the loss by taking advantage of lax Japanese accounting standards, and engage the client in risky trades to recoup. If that doesn’t work, another opportunity will fall into Awano’s lap. Behind every problem is a profitable solution. He’ll figure that out and thank me later.

I’m on the trading floor during the calm before the storm. The market hasn’t opened yet and the squawk boxes are silent. The expanse is filled with hushed phone conversations and the hum of computer screens. Traders and salespeople are conferring with their clients, checking out the firm’s inventory, and studying our research. They’re getting a sense for how the day will shape up and formulating the sales talk they’ll use to push our offerings.
I walk past the commercial paper and mortgage desks, and unlock the door to my office. A hundred eyes watch me step inside, and I know what people are saying behind my back. Occasionally they express their feelings directly—like last month, for instance, when I laid off sixty of their colleagues. Bastard was the epithet of choice then.
That’s fine, because since I began managing the firm three years ago, our stock price—and the perquisite shares I was given—have quadrupled in value. That doesn’t occur by chance, or by winning popularity contests, either. It happens when a man knows what he wants and is driven by achievement. As for me, I abide by a single notion. There’s only one excuse in life: I didn’t want it badly enough.
Based upon our success, you might assume deal volume has increased, but that’s not the case. Investment banking is a competitive business and you can’t gain market share without buying it. The fact is I don’t care about league tables, those high-brow measures of banking prowess. You can’t eat that kind of prestige. Cash is all that matters to me.
What I have done is pay attention to how our results look on paper. I’ve cut loose a quarter of our people, sold off the retail unit, and focused on a handful of strategically connected businesses. We’ve incurred restructuring costs—no doubt about that—but they’ve been small compared to the savings in our bonus pool. And I learned long ago that on Wall Street a man’s future is determined by how well he slices the pie.
That’s why I’ve changed the way we compensate people. Today, everybody gets a third of their bonuses paid out in stock, but here’s the catch: the shares don’t begin to vest for three years. We say it’s to insure behavior beneficial to the long-term interests of the firm—a compelling half-truth—but even I see the irony. While the company’s capital base grows, our long-term interest in people diminishes. We jettison even good employees and pocket the value of their compensation not vested. It’s a course I hesitate to take, but the courageous thing to do.
These thoughts are at play in my head for a reason. Our bonus pool is skinny this year and my compensation interviews will begin in a few hours. I sit down at my desk, having already determined who among our employees we can afford to lose. For those on the list I’m cutting pay. I plan to take their verbal abuse, then suggest they find work elsewhere if that’s how they feel. We sacrifice the weak in order to retain the strong. Isn’t that what nature teaches us?


My first meeting is with Greg Emissary, the head of our government desk. Greg usually does a good job, but he was on the wrong side of a bet when the Fed raised interest rates earlier this year. He’s been working himself out of a hole ever since.
Six years ago he joined us to trade the belly of the curve—that’s what we call seven to ten year Treasuries. It’s tough work with a lot of action. Every couple of seconds someone asks for a bid or offer, and while you hope to make a half-tick on each trade, you struggle to keep your position hedged. The work will frazzle you, but Greg keeps his cool.
After his first day on the job, a few of us took him to dinner and one of the guys inquired about the name Emissary. Greg said it was Polish, but a corrupted version of the way it’s pronounced in the old country.
“So, you’re a Pollack, huh?” someone said.
Greg laughed and asked if we knew how a fellow of Polish descent pulled up his socks. Before anyone could speak, he dropped his trousers—even let them hit the floor—then bent to give his stockings a tug. He did this in the middle of a crowded bar, wearing briefs for God’s sake. It was hilarious.
Now Greg walks into my office and he has the springy gait and physical size of a linebacker. He used to play football for Stanford, but who on my trading floor didn’t play ball? I motion for Greg to sit and his dark eyebrows furrow. His mouth forms a taut line across his face. People don’t smile in my presence. It’s an occupational hazard.
He takes a seat and I don’t waste any time. I slide a sheet of paper toward him and there’s a number on it. Salaries on Wall Street are designed to keep you hungry, so we all work for what comes at yearend. When a trader dreams of leaving the street, it’s the number of bonuses—not the years of work—he counts before making a getaway. Greg takes the paper. He looks up and his face is impassive.
“You seem to be missing a zero,” he says.
“I’m afraid not.”

He shakes his head and I wonder: If it came to blows, could I take him? All I know is it would be a good fight, one plenty of folks would pay to watch. They would root for Greg, of course, but that’s okay. Being liked isn’t everything. Someone has to take a stand and create value. Someone has to do the courageous thing.
“What am I supposed to take away from this?” he asks.
“No particular message. It was a tough year for us. You might do better elsewhere, but that’s for you to decide.”
I can guess what he’s thinking: A whole year wasted. But Greg doesn’t say a word. He only stands and walks out. The guy will be missed, I tell myself. Hell, I’ll miss him, and my stomach turns at the thought of another empty seat on the floor.
A minute later I hear a knock and Marta Calloway enters. Marta is the head of research. She’s lean and lanky—a redhead with startling green eyes. I hand a paper to her and she smiles. “Are you staying in the city tonight?” she asks.
I nod.
“Where did you say your place was?”
The address spills off my tongue as I get a key from my desk and toss it to her.

That evening I go to my loft in Chelsea, a place I rent for the nights work keeps me late. I open the door—unsure of what awaits me there—and the scent of Chinese takeout wafts from inside. In the time it takes to slip off my jacket, Marta emerges from the bathroom dressed in a cotton bathrobe. She fidgets for a moment, then motions me to the breakfast nook where there are cartons of food.
“I wasn’t sure what you liked,” she says.
We sit together and I recall an anecdote regarding the inhabitants of heaven and hell. In both places a daily banquet is prepared and served with eating utensils that are six feet long. While the devil’s minions are frustrated by their predicament, angels in paradise feed each other and leave the banquet satisfied. That’s the difference between the two worlds: It’s in the way people react to them. I try to keep that in mind as Marta grasps a pair of chopsticks and lifts a bite of lemon chicken in my direction. I take it in my mouth, when a dizzy mix of desire and guilt passes through me. If you’re smart, I tell myself, you’ll back out now.
But how can I do that?
“I hear you’ll be writing a new emerging market piece,” I say, hoping the nervousness in my voice isn’t apparent.
Marta chuckles. “You heard wrong then. That’s not a priority for me.”
“Maybe it ought to be. It could generate business. We have inventory to unload.”
“Then why don’t you write it?”
Marta feigns haughtiness. She rests a fist on her hip and inserts her chopsticks into a carton, letting them protrude from the mu shu pork like hands on a clock. I pick up the utensils and rest them across the container. In Japan, I tell her, placing chopsticks upright in food is taboo and tolerated only at funerals.
“Why?” she asks.
“Because it invites spirits of the dead to eat.”
Marta rolls her eyes and says in an almost breathless way, “Shit, Gary. This is Chinese food. Will you relax?” She extends a hand to loosen my tie, then her eyes seem to lose focus. She touches my chest and her fingers work to unbutton my shirt.
I don’t love Marta. In fact, I’m not even sure I like her, but adrenaline clouds my judgment. Seeing her here for the first time is akin to closing a high-profile deal. The secretive glances that led to this moment—the intimate disclosures and weeks of waffling and acquiescing—were titillating beyond measure, but nothing compared to the feeling of power that flows over me now. I pull on the terrycloth tie at her waist and reach inside her robe. She shudders and scoots toward me.
You’re almost mine now, I think. I’m going to own you.
We shower together before tumbling into bed, a tangle of limbs and tongues. At first I’m lost in lust and free of guilt, but all too soon an inexplicable moment arrives and my most urgent desire becomes my deepest revulsion. I roll off of Marta, but she clings to me and immediately falls asleep. With all thy getting get understanding. The motet plays in my head as I stare at the ceiling, but the tortured sound defies reconciliation.

I’m up before sunrise, trying not to make a noise. Marta is still asleep—one of her long legs stretched over the covers and arms akimbo. She’s on her back, vulnerable and owned. Through the dim light and thin blankets I can see her every contour. How many times have I imagined this scene and been aroused by it? Yet no such feeling possesses me now. I get ready for the day and leave without speaking.
From the office I call my wife and her surprise is obvious. “Is something wrong?” she asks.
Beth’s question is disarming and leaves me at a loss for words. The truth is too difficult to relate—that I need to hear her voice and know I haven’t put an end to something dear between us—so I lie. “There’s a message here on my desk,” I say. “The handwriting is illegible. Was it you who called?”
“No, Baby,” she says and laughs. “I know better than that.”
Her answer bruises me and I ask what she meant by it.
“Come on, Gary. You’re busy. We all know that. There’s no criticism in what I say. It’s just how things are.”
I allow too much time to pass without a reply, unsure if I can handle the conversation.
“Are you okay?” Beth asks.
“Just bummed about being a year older, I guess.”
“Uh huh. And bonus season doesn’t help. The decisions you have to make—all those people and their families to consider—it can’t be fun.”
I close my eyes and tell Beth that something has come up. I hang up the phone and swivel in my chair. Beyond my office window the Hudson River passes thirty stories below me. Lady Liberty is to my left in the distance. I gaze across the water into New Jersey, puzzled by words that escape my lips.
“It’s the courageous thing to do, Beth.”


That evening it’s nearly eleven-thirty when the driver pulls into my driveway. I step through the door and Shadrach meets me there, head lowered, his eyes half-closed and tail wagging. These are the expressions he reserves for me, his way of paying homage to the alpha male.
“I love you, too,” I say and mean it.
Beth is sitting in an armchair. Her head is back and she’s asleep with a magazine in her lap. She stirs and smiles when I kiss her cheek.
“I thought you might’ve stayed in the city again,” she says.
The idea had occurred to me, but I’ve been craving what’s here at home, a refuge away from the chaos. On bad days, I long to hold Beth. She’s a rare source of comfort and solace. I stoop to hug her, and she seems to sense my need.
“Bonus season,” she says. “It takes a lot out of you, doesn’t it?”
Her words sting for their tenderness, and I know I’ll be crushed if Beth ever learns of my infidelity. She’ll think I don’t adore her, but the truth is more complicated. On the trading floor cold logic and adrenaline guide me. I sever feeling from conduct, never allowing one to clash with the other. It’s the only way I can survive at work. Yet here and now I honor the sanctity of our marriage, and across a battlefield in my heart everything I believe observes all that I’ve done and grieves.
My wife rises to get a plate of dinner from the refrigerator and set it in the microwave. We talk briefly about the kids (they’ll all make honor roll again) then Beth apologizes, saying she’s helping at school tomorrow and needs to rest. She heads downstairs just as the microwave beeps. I get the food—roast chicken, wild rice, and red potatoes—and sit down to eat.
Shadrach joins me at the table and rests his head on my knee. I give him a piece of chicken that he gobbles without chewing. The dog, I recall, accompanied us to Tokyo when the firm transferred me there. He tolerated the two-week quarantine and the dearth of leash-free walks. The whole time he never drank from standing rainwater (aware, I suppose, of pollutants washed out of the city sky) and I felt sorry for him. That was long ago, but I haven’t forgotten a promise I made—that we would give him daily walks on the beach once we returned home.
I decide to treat Shadrach to a midnight run and change into sweats. Outside, the moon is full and it lights the trail ahead of us. We race along the ridge overlooking the water and New York in the distance. I try not to think about work, and my unfinished motet comes to mind. Suddenly I’m humming all the notes to the final tight chord and the words fill my head. With all thy getting get understanding. Various transitions occur to me, but I like one in particular. The alto line retains the minor third that gives the piece its angst. Then as if by a strange alchemy, the final syllable is reached and the alto part resolves to the base note. It’s subtle, yet grand.
I’m so caught up in the music, that I almost miss the fact that Shadrach is no longer beside me. I turn, and the dog is a few yards back squatting below the rim of a steep rise and facing downhill with his tail extended. He drops a round turd. It’s firm and rolls between his legs past him. Even in the dim light I can see Shadrach’s reaction. His eyes brighten in a way that seem to say: It’s alive! He gives chase, but before taking the dung into his mouth, he sneezes and turns away.
I begin to laugh, and the sound of it is swallowed up by the surf. Suddenly I realize how alike we are, Shadrach and I: We’ve both been led astray by the crap of our own making. My laughter turns to a groan, and I fall to my knees and cover my eyes.
Once I believed work and home were separate worlds, and I could pass through one without conveying its taint to the other. But how can I believe that now, when the music of life is all but snuffed out of me—when each day is tolerable only with its dose of adrenaline? Understanding finally comes, but there’s no resolution, no shining and resonant chord. There’s only the taste of bile in my mouth and a war in my chest, everything I believe finally clashing with all that I’ve done.

1 comment:

Dan Chay said...

Great story, wonderfully written; with beautiful insights. "With all thy getting, get understanding." (!!!)