a matter of belief (fiction)

Speaking to Alan, who’s hunched over towers of leaflets on the opposite side of the desk, would be easier if Charles turned and faced him, but instead Charles chooses to face the wall-sized window and speak into the glass. He does this not only because it is less bothersome than directing his words at a person who is clearly not listening, but because he feels it adds to each statement a lofty destructiveness, like he were dropping word bombs over the sprawling city. He speaks:

“Everyone I know wishes only to take from me. There is no more compassion, no more respect, they do not even fake it anymore. Ever since the beginning, I have given them so much, but the giving just led to more taking. What will be left of me once they have taken it all?”

Alan licks both thumbs as he matches court orders, subpoenas and newspaper clippings with relevant company files. He deals documents like they’re high stakes poker hands into parallel piles on the great desk almost completely without thought, registering only bits of what Charles is saying, aware that his work is more likely to save them than anything Charles could say.

Alan: “There’s still hope yet. To our knowledge the company isn’t against you – Lewis and Rothman both expressed support on the record in The Journal, which should keep the dogs off for at least a few more days. Bearbull has been quoted separately by journalists at both the Daily and the Times in the last week, which says to me that he hasn’t got enough on you to keep busy. Once he disappears for a while, we’ll know he’s working up a case, and anyway we’ve still got months until trial. Until then there’s nothing left for him, or anyone, to take, Charles. It’s up to you to set the tone.”

Charles has always preferred things that are hard, that seem impossible to escape. Like a rat stuck in a corner, trouble is the state in which he thinks most clearly. The problem with his current position is that there is very little thinking to be done, very few cards unturned, no hands left to play. He lays at the will of a praise-seeking District Attorney while being simultaneously cornered by a fanged soon-to-be ex-wife and a Board of shadow-lurking Directors who smell blood. It seems to Charles that all of the individuals who once held seats at the table in his mind’s very own Last Supper were now simply waiting for the charges to come in from D.A. Bearbull, knives gripped and glands salivating at the thought of cutting themselves a piece of his pie. The cloudless New York spring afternoon looks deceptively warm from Charles’ penthouse window. “What of my wife?”

“Oh, Clarissa has been making the tabloid rounds, trying to cause a stir with that vampire lawyer of hers. She’s screaming into the void Charles, don’t let her noises keep you up.”

Her name had become a source of searing pain for Charles. She held and exercised her absolute advantage over him in a way his other ex-wives never had. His last two divorces were more bombastic and his ex-wives more outrageous in their fury, but those dealings were nowhere as spiritually taxing as this one. She had a way of probing him, molding his image of her from a distance, her hold over him pressing harder on his mind than the D.A’s wish to put him behind bars, or the Board hovering above his head like a thundercloud. She was all they could hope to be and worse, and he was trapped in her prison long before the others caught wind.

The glass fogs incrementally as Charles speaks. “When I first came here the only thing I wanted was to be seen as equal, as anything but less than. It took me decades to climb the ladder but I did it, not because I had to, but because it was the way things moved. I made enemies along the way, but who would not in my position? I was a magnet for takers. Everyone wanted a piece of me until I could not get away. I got locked in at the top too old and I could not retire, could not leave the company I had worked so hard to build. But with the power came the stresses, and with the stresses came the pain. The pain of giving.”

Alan scribbles The Pain of Giving on the left margin of what seems a particularly dense court order. “Sounds like you just named your memoir!”

The sun is immensely bright but gives off little heat, situated frighteningly low above the rusted black and white city structures, cutting especially crisp into Charles’ penthouse window and casting his tiresome shadow over Alan, who’s exponentially less productive in low light.

It’s common street knowledge that magazines burn better than newspapers, because of their thickness and density, when all you’re after is a long slow burn. This is why stacks of rolled up BusinessWeek and Forbes rest charred at the bottom of the two black metal bins in Rico’s lot, because they burn slower than the Times in face of the bone-chilling New York night.

Rico, Tom and E.Z. are invisible to passers-by as they meld into their belongings the way tenured homeless often do. A motley crew of plastic bags, earth toned glass bottles and material – stacks and stacks of material – make ant hills surrounding the three compadres whose state is something like half-sleep. Two material-loaded shopping carts encase the boys on both sides like endzones, untied but somehow not rolling down the driveway at the top of which they’re situated. The day is bright but not warm, and the wind swirls so Rico’s leaves spin in little grounded tornadoes around his lot.

Make no mistake, these are Rico’s leaves, his carts, his stacks of material. Everything in the lot is Rico’s because this is Rico’s lot. Tom and E.Z. are friendly but dispensable, and are keen to not fuck with Rico or his lot, because as long as they remain in his good graces, the material and the carts and the whole great bounty of Rico’s lot is theirs too. In this way, Rico is a gracious God. So when E.Z. leaves each afternoon to collect BusinessWeek and Forbes, he does so with pride, knowing that this is his role for the betterment of the collective, and he works to bring home more fuel for the fire each day. That’s how E.Z. sees Rico’s lot: home. If he wants to keep it that way, he needs to produce.

Tom is less financially obligated to Rico because they’re bound as holdovers from an earlier lot, where they served Desmond, a God less gracious than Rico, as the shareholders who retrieved the daily magazines. But after Desmond got nasty-wrecked by a motorcycle last winter, his lot went hayloose when all five remaining tenants fought tooth and nail for the treasures he left behind. Colette took Bernardo’s guts out with a straw-pipe over a box of soft cotton, and Munia L. got dematerialized by the fuzz running through Hell’s Kitchen with a bag of needleless syringes. Once Tom and Rico teamed up and overpowered Collette, they were quick to divvy up the remaining loot and pack for greener pastures. Tom didn’t mind ceding authority over the new lot to Rico, who was more assertive than Tom and always seemed like he had a big plan. Since then, they have developed a bond where few things are said but much is understood, and lay half-sleep amongst their belongings most days.

 Rico isn’t specific about his feelings that everything (even the air) in his lot belongs to him. He has a general conception of what that really means for him and his compadres, but feels that as long as they seem to abide by it, it need not be mentioned. If he needed to, he would tell them that this was his lot because he claimed it, and if somebody else wanted it they’d have to take it from him. Luckily for Rico, his lot was largely uninteresting to passers-by and remains tentatively off the general homeless radar, leading him and Tom and the newly acquired E.Z. to live a rather laissez-faire lifestyle. Rico trusts Tom and relies on E.Z., but largely avoids interfering with either of them as they do to him. The lot is a self-stabilizing enterprise, and its benefits – security, warmth, reliability – are allocated equally to all parties involved.

Diagonally across from Rico’s lot is a small corner park, the physical and symbolic heart of which is a tall, unnaturally black marble statue resting atop a naturally white marble plinth which reads, Adam Smith 1723 – 1790, The Father of Economics. E.Z. passes the statue on his afternoon magazine hunts each day and has often considered that it seemed to him that all “fathers” of anything important had ubiquitously regular names: John Adams, Steve Jobs, Henry Ford. Adam Smith was no different, and led E.Z. to think that maybe the people with the most generic names felt like they had to make up for it somehow, release themselves of the shackles of regularity and literally “make a name for themselves.” E.Z. considers a concept along these lines semi-regularly on his way to and fro the poorly guarded news stands and corner stores he cops magazines from, but never in those exact terms, because like Rico, E.Z. isn’t very articulate. However, although homeless and oftentimes mindless, E.Z. is far from brainless. Copping mags in large quantities isn’t exactly slight work, as Rico and Tom could attest. It requires stealth, reckless ambition and a blanket disregard for the possibility of failure. E.Z. is a natural, and thus hoists glorious cartons full of BusinessWeek and Forbes past the Smith statue each day. He relishes in his work as defying Smith’s legacy as a capitalistic icon, as if the fatherly marble statue couldn’t bear to watch the little homeless guy get his. More than the statue, it was the white marble plinth that raised it that prodded at E.Z.’s perennially nagged conscience. A statue wasn’t enough for the father of greed? His overbearing stature had to be firmly rooted in the ground, his ideology planted in the streets? E.Z., who’d dropped out of high school and run away from home, was never taught that Smith was in fact the pioneer theorist on morality’s role in economics, and preached that economies could be both successful and good. In light of this not knowing, E.Z.’s displeasure with the towering figure’s presence made his smile wider and more carnivorous each day, as his gaze pierced straight through the legacy of the statue, all the while hoisting his cartons so high. While E.Z. was indebted to Rico and worked each day to secure his place with him, his will to cop ‘zines came from a different place, a mental battle with the father of everything he didn’t have.

Charles is not a bad man, the way all rich old mysterious men who stare solemnly from penthouse windows are predictably bad. He draws from an adolescence of no wealth, and through dedication to excellence in his craft rose like sewer steam to the top of a highly regarded and incredibly fruitful hedge fund in lower Manhattan. Nobody could blame him for this. His weaponized silence and slow decision making process made him the last to begin to climb the ladder, but also made his ascent the sturdiest and ultimately the longest. His peers revered him as a native negotiator and he was applauded and awarded for his conscientious, unselfish business tactics. His career moved steadily upward like this for decades until Charles became the top, and there was nothing exciting left to do but look down. This meant that the business colleagues and loved ones he’d carried up with him had nowhere to look but to Charles, and like the face one sees after looking in a mirror too long, they began to see only the worst in him. All the things he fought for – enterprise, charity, collective well-being – began to antagonize the people in his life who saw it all as cannon fodder for the means that made the man. He became the root of so much projected disgust for his wives and his fellow businessmen that eventually they wanted nothing more than to see him perish. In all of Charles’ unblemished morality, he had failed to see the deterioration of himself in their eyes, failed to understand the motives of those around him, and didn’t think to stop them before they could sink their teeth in.

The beginning of the end was a meeting six months earlier in the very same penthouse where Charles now grieves his mistakes. A long-time friend and business partner who Charles mistakenly trusted, who he affectionately referred to then as K.B., had been welcomed into Charles’ home with a business proposition. K.B., associate manager of a less prominent but still somewhat fruitful hedge fund based in southern Rhode Island came to Charles as a friend in need, as so many before him had, claiming that Charles was the only person who could help him. K.B.’s problem, as he enumerated to Charles from the very seat where Alan now shuffles the deck of subpoenas, was that his fund’s portfolio had become stretched extremely thin by a series of poor investment decisions which he claimed were in large part his very own desperate mistakes. K.B. continued to claim that he was coming scarily close to being voted out of his position by the Board as “negligent,” and would need nothing short of an act of God to save him from the results of his own bad judgement. His God was now Charles, who held in his own personal portfolio a respectable share of Catharsis Insurance, a national brand name with an inescapable jingle that rang bells across America, and K.B. was enough of a long time compatriot of Charles’ to now comfortably beg that he lend those shares to K.B.’s hedge fund in exchange for K.B.’s most sincere appreciation (and a collateral letter of credit). K.B. relayed in quick succession that a) he would return the investment within three months because b) he would sell the shares at a lofty price and surely buy them back soon after for pocket lint, which he claimed to know for a fact because he’d been c) “watching the stock for months, and could feel it was about to get caught in the inescapable suck of the trade floor toilet.” To this, Charles assented. Not because he was getting older and was tired of foot-tapping in the open short position, not because he felt he was doing K.B. a favor for which he could be later rewarded, not because he thought K.B.’s argument was rock solid. Charles relented because he liked K.B., and thought he could help his friend.

After the short agreement was signed and the shares lent to K.B.’s hedge fund not from Charles’ own fund but from his personal stock portfolio, it was only a matter of time before K.B.’s thickheaded plan blew up in both of their faces. The fact was K.B. hadn’t been watching Catharsis’ stock at all, but in fact was long time croquet partners with Catharsis’ CFO Farragut Chuck, who in between strokes on the green let out a burly, straight-from-the-gut type sigh before foolishly telling K.B., who he too considered his friend, that his company’s days as the nation’s catchiest insurance brand were numbered. Acting upon this kind of restricted information, K.B., who truly was under fire from his Board of Directors, was engaging in what the financial industry termed insider trading, a practice which has brought death to many a trader before him. So two months after that fateful meeting, when news broke that Catharsis Insurance had been forcing thousands of clients to pay for bogus coverage they could never hope to see the benefits of, and a fleet of lawsuits caused it’s stock price to plummet to a sixth of what it had been when K.B. sold the shares Charles had lent him, and K.B. had successfully shorted the stock and returned to his hedge fund’s Board with the ass-saving news, alarm bells rang across the table and the inevitable question was asked: “How Did You Know?” It took two months for the true details of K.B.’s short to completely unfold in the form of investigative articles in The Providence Journal and then later on the web-edition of the genuine Journal, and Charles was named in both stories as a key party who had declined to comment. It goes without saying that K.B. was B-lined for a white-collar prison stint and canonized across Facebook timelines as the new face of Wall Street getting what it deserved, as well as that the returns K.B. had received from selling Charles’ shares were liquidated and sold back to Catharsis (who inevitably put them toward paying gigantic fines) and the collateral promise he made to Charles was never fulfilled.

Charles’ carelessness, which led to innumerably bad press for his hedge fund and the complete dissolution of K.B.’s was seen by many as a sign that his abilities were fading with age. On top of this, he was faced with a D.A. who knew that bringing down a big name moneyman like Charles would paint him as the hero of the working class. Nonetheless, Charles couldn’t be immediately criminally charged the way K.B. had, because in all his idiocy K.B. was still kind to him in stating on police record that Charles had no idea about the information K.B. had, and was essentially a big fat dope that K.B. had swindled. In many ways, Charles was a big fat dope, in the way that all overly generous people who blindly trust their friends inevitably turn out to be big fat dopes.

A triangulation of mutterings carves across the trashcan’s flame like intersecting smore sticks.

            “But so you tell me. What is it. Who’s the whats.”

            “It’s been told, Rico. Not gonna say it again.”

            “Yessir you gonna Tom cuz I asked. You wanna make me ask again?”

            “You is askin’ again righnow! It’s like third time you ask me.”

            “There ain’t gonna be a fourth ‘fyou keep up.”

            “Lasko P.T.’s who’s the deal with. He want the rock and tells me he pay a right price. He ain’t gonna need it much longer so he say get right before Friday.”

            “When’s that.”

            “Think’n two days.”

            “We gonna get it. We gonna get it.”

            “But what’s it? What’s the what?”

            “E.Z. shut up. You think you don’t know for a reason?’

            “Couldn’t see why, I deserve to know.”

            “You deserve a pipe to the dome, E.Z. Keep shut.”

            ‘Tom. Tom. You keep shut. E.Z. is right, he deserves to know.”

            “You tell him then.”

            “Please do Rico. ‘Ppreciate chou.”

            “E.Z. You don’t know cuz you be going out every day copping these ‘zines, which you know we ‘ppreciate, is why we where we is now and it’s good. Tom and I been talkin’ about doing something big. Making things right.”

            “Damn straight.”

            “You see that corner park with the big ugly mother fucker up tall?”

            “I know it well. Adam Smith.”

            “That’s right. So me and Tom thinkin that corner park always empty. Nobody even go there on nice days. We bet nobody even notice that statue go missin. Tom say that his boy Lasko P.T. cop that statue off us for Five together, Seven in pieces.”

            “He wants the statue in pieces?”

            “It ain’t about the statue. It’s ‘bout the marble it’s made of. ‘Pparently Tom’s boy Lasko got a good gig dishing marble.”

            “Real good gig. Dishes to Eastern Euro constructors who use it for rich family kitchen tops. Lasko says he get us Seven for the straight rock. Doesn’t matter how it look.”

            “Seven’s a lot of green. Do a lot in a lot like yours with Seven, Rico.”

            “Exacto E.Z. Exacto. That’s why we need to bust that thing open and dish the parts to Lasko P.T. ‘fore Friday. And you know what, I think you just the man to do it.”

            “You think I’m just the man for what.”

            “Bust that body wide open. I’ll even front the cash to cop a sack of dirtbomb for you. I know a guy with connects by Holland Tunnel.”


            “Shit bomb. Bomb o’ dirt. It’s this kind of fertilization dirt. Light it up and it blow fat. I say we stick a bag of that under Adam Smith’s nutsack and collect what’s left.”


            “Tomorrow ‘round sunset.”

            “Aight. I’ll do it.”

            “Thattaboy, E.Z. This why you my boy. This why.”

            “Good shit E.Z., I’ll tell Lasko tomorrow we getting right.”

            “And imma get you that shit bomb before you get back from coppin ‘zines.”

            “Alright boys. Alright.”

E.Z., which stands for Enzo, is not one to disappoint the friends who took him in, and has also developed his own reasons for wanting the statue destroyed. Following their agreement, Rico’s lot turned noiseless but for the crackle of the flames, without even the fleeting sounds of rats scurrying in the shadows. The night sky was painfully clear.

The next day was slow and ruminative for E.Z., until it wasn’t. Returning to Rico’s lot with that day’s magazine loot tucked between shoulder and side he was quick to see that things were not the way they typically had been. Tom was aggressively performing what looked like half-understood yoga positions on a stack of material, and Rico was scribbling viciously on a piece of frayed cardboard.           

            “E.Z.! Com’ere righnow,” Rico yelled as Tom restructured himself.

Rico displayed his scribbles for E.Z., and they appeared to be an illustration of Rico’s lot and the park, with a line drawn between both.

            “This us. This where you gonna be when you drop the dirtbomb. This the way you should run after you light it. Keep runnin’ ‘til you can’t hear no sirens. Don’t come back here ‘til night.”


            “Tom and me gonna be right behind you to collect the marble. We runnin’ straight off the other way after that. All works out, we meet back here tonight with Seven.”


Rico handed E.Z. a small plastic bag filled with what looked and smelled like dog shit. Inside were protruding pieces of paper that were meant to be lit as a makeshift fuse. He then handed E.Z. the lighter, which was white, with its designed wrapping peeled off.

            “It’s like sparkin’ a doobie, except after you spark it, you run. Ain’t no smoking this doobie.”

            “I ain’t tryna smoke a doobie made of shit.”

            “That’s right. You smart, E.Z,” Rico said.

            “Good shit, E.Z,” Tom agreed.

 The sun mid-set overhead, Enzo moved briskly across the street and toward the park, his jeans sagging and wrapping around the soles of his shoes, ingraining the fibers of pant with who knows what under there, becoming a muggier and almost separate entity than the rest of his jeans. He floated between trees and cars like a cloud through a river valley, molding to the shape of the objects around him. Enzo was a stealth master, part of why he was so good at copping magazines. Gripping the bag looseley in a right hand covered by the end of his long sleeve, he looked right to left before approaching the statue and lighting the fuse. Rico and Tom crouched hidden behind an SUV at the corner, boxes and bags in hand.

It’s impossible to know for sure if what happened next was simply a mirage, a case study of collective misremembering or a genuine full blown act of God. The empty street had meant there would be no direct witnesses besides Tom and Rico to agree that in fact the dirtbomb had blown, rather exceptionally at that, and been the cause of white marble flying every which way. There would be only parallel parkers who later found holes in their passenger side windows to confirm that in fact marble had been blown. There would be no definitive conclusion reached as to how or why what happened happened, but it would be a topic of folklore for many trash-fire discussions to come.

E.Z. didn’t care to look back, but remembers hearing the sound as he ran randomly in the wrong direction away from a short fuse, and to his mind, that was enough. What he didn’t see as he hopped a small fence and ran through a kimchee infused alley behind Wae Woo’s Korean and Noodle was perhaps the first and last genuine act of God, because the dirtbomb had worked, and had blown the white marble plinth to smithereens, but somehow, some way, the statue didn’t blow. For some unidentifiable mystic reason, Adam Smith’s black marble figure was completely in tact from head to toe, and what’s more, it didn’t even fall. Adam Smith, the father of economics, just floated in mid-air without even the slightest rumble or shake, as if still rooted in the park. He was certainly floating, as Tom and Rico both later attested that the base that he no longer stood on was crushed and sent flying in small bits throughout the park. But Adam, good old Mr. Smith was secure, immovable. This is something E.Z. didn’t see. What’s worse is that the statue seemed to be rising, as if freed from it’s tie to the ground, slowly climbing higher into the air. This was a point heavily argued between Rico and Tom above later trash fires. The point that neither argued was that something happened there in that corner park that was worth immeasurably more than Seven. They knew something that nobody else knew, and they believed it, and it brought Rico and Tom closer than they ever could have thought.

What none of them knew was what was written on the backside of the marble base they destroyed, the side facing away from Rico’s lot. On that side of the base, in small lettering, a quote from the father of economics was etched, before being divided into chunks across the corner:

All money is a matter of belief.

                          -Adam Smith

Alan was a clinical worrier, but Charles’ mind was made up. It seemed as though the limited decisions he had left to make about how he ended up had frozen him solid, and he stood staring out the window at the depths of New York, exactly as he had the day before. Alan, while no longer physically behind him, was worriedly ranting to Charles over speakerphone, his tone much different today than it had previously been.

“Those slimy, gutless bastards. They don’t know what’s coming to them Charles. I’m going to fight this with everything I’ve got. These are inexcusable actions, totally blasphemous and I’m going to make them choke on their words. Fire you? Fire you? What gives them the right? And of all things, for negligence? It’s plainly unbelievable, and we’re going to fight. Yes, we’re going to fight, and we’re going to win. You say the word and I’ll file the suit.”

But Charles was getting older, and he knew in his heart that the time was right, whether it was his choice or theirs. He knew he wasn’t a negligent manager, but he had made his mistake and enabled the takers. He could no longer gather the power to even blame the vultures for picking at his bones, let alone fight, and was finally ready to let himself be killed.

Stare decisis, Alan. Stare decisis.”

Alan, an educated man, knew from television that when Latin was provoked, it meant the end was truly near.

“But the takers, we can’t let the takers win. You said it yourself.”

It’s true, Charles didn’t want to let the takers win. His sense of moral goodness had held firm, and he despised the notion that his role would be filled by a spineless money grubbing monster – what he had seen so many of his colleagues become over the years. But powerlessness was powerlessness, and he knew he couldn’t fight the Board and win.

“Stare decisis,” and he hung up on Alan for the very first time.

His “decision to step down from his position,” as the Board had said he should term it, would create opportunity for the advancement of hundreds of his former employees. So many hopeful newcomers fighting to climb their own ladders would now find themselves a rung higher, invigorating a new entrepreneurial spirit in the fund. The fund would most likely function better than it ever had under Charles, with a younger, more assertive and in-tune manager at the helm. The Board would return to a state of passive comfort, and assure the shareholders that their money was going to be safe.

Charles organized his own small stack of files and laid them on the great table, dwarfed by Alan’s accumulation of worried notes. He laid down and penned his name to two documents, first the finalization of his divorce papers with the impenetrable C, divulging to her a great sum of his wealth, and then his will, which bequeathed his remaining fortune to his estranged son Enzo, who’d alienated himself from an upbringing of riches in search of a more fulfilling life.

Charles had always praised his son’s moral sense, and prided himself on the thought that it was inherited. This illustrated to him a spirit that was worth the investment. His only concern was that his long-lost son, estranged for so long from a father who represented everything he despised, would find his sense of goodness corrupted by a sudden influx of wealth. Charles kept this notion of corrupted morals in mind, but didn’t think of it as he sent his head crashing through the window. No, as Charles began to descend the long way to the street below, he couldn’t help but consider how all of his actions, everything he had done to get where he was, was for the betterment of self. His self interest was what ultimately guided him to the ground, and what inevitably left everyone around him far better off – an invisible hand, orchestrating life after death.

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