by Steven J. Frank

Lovely, yes, lovely. All the colors and the furbelow. But can’t we get on with it already?

Bennett was trapped on all sides and he knew it. They’d taken their places now, row after row. Wife and daughter on his left, soulful faces to the right, all lined up like rigid toy soldiers at attention. He could feel the velvet seat cushion pressing at the back of his knees, smell the perfumed mannequin standing just ahead of him in the next file. What did they know? Missy had almost died two days ago from the blood treatments, did they know that? Did they know he’d checked in on her every two hours, all through the night? Did they have any appreciation for the fact that right now he had to piss like a goddamn racehorse, and if he didn’t soon, he might just flood this entire little ritualistic spectacle that had barely begun even though it was two minutes to post? Two minutes!

The robed and hatted speaker began to chant, with the authority of one whose every incantation contained the answer to some profound question. Why not just get right to the point? Assets and liabilities, that’s all it amounted to, any of it. The thought rang oddly in his mind — as if he’d copped out by selecting the most obvious accountant’s metaphor. But so what? None of his partners knew metaphors from interest floors, none could see beyond their spreadsheets. And as his paddock blacksmith always said, if the shoe fits …

Post time!

Got to get out! –Excuse me.– Get just one fucking minute of privacy. –Men’s room– he mouthed to his wife as he slid by. His daughter glared at him, lifted her arm in an elaborate sarcastic gesture as he passed and inspected her wrist. Nice watch. Movado, maybe? Must have cost a ton whatever it was. He’d find out just how much next monthly statement.

Bennett’s daughter certainly knew what time it was. Knew plenty else besides. Made no secret of it.

Talk about unscheduled liabilities! He’d done everything so she’d turn out a boy. Wore a jock strap night and day to raise his testicular temperature and kill off some of those X chromosomes. That annoying diet, the special positions — all wasted, like lost dollars after a failed investment.

At last he could feel the brass plate against his palm, flung the door open and marched in. Couldn’t they afford to retile the moldering floor in this place, replace that cracked window pane? he wondered with irritation. Wasn’t he paying them enough?

The broken window glass focused the incoming sunlight into a raking shaft, so the little dust cloud Bennett unleashed as he fumbled urgently with his fly glowed in front of him like a plume of sparks. Then the hoagie flopped out in a shower of tiny flakes, dried residue from Georgiana’s birth-control cream, which turned the glowing plume into a fireworks festival. Bennett didn’t wait for the blissful stream to subside before extending the antenna on his pocket cellular, which chirped in obedience as he punched the familiar number on those tiny round keys. Beam me up, Scottie, he always thought in response to that chirp. It was a rueful memory. Beam Me Up! What a terrific horse. Never should have let him run in that lousy 15K claimer. Now 15K wouldn’t even pay his stud fee.

Stud. Another association, this one far more pleasant: that was what Georgiana called him. Sometimes.

So where the hell was Shaffer? Six rings, seven rings … Hadn’t he been specific in his instructions? Stay at the goddamn paddock, watch the race on television, I probably won’t be able to get away for more than a minute, see? Just stay put!

Shake off the drip drops, again the fireworks display. His daughter knew. His wife didn’t, or at least so he thought, at least not yet. What a stupid lapse in judgment, protesting so much! And he’d volunteered for the opportunity, no less, before she’d even had a chance to nag him about how he never spent time with his daughter, blah, blah, blah. Took her down to the stables while her mother shopped or whatever, lolled around pressing carrots and sugar cubes between the twisting gummy lips and racks of rock-hard horse teeth, were just getting ready to leave when Jesse, the smartass private groom, decided to offer his uninvited opinion on the upcoming election.

“Never trusted that Clinton dude. Wasn’t right what he done.”

“Come on, who the hell cares who he propositions! Don’t be so eager to stand in judgment of others! Maybe there’s more to it …”

“I’m talkin bout skippin the draft. Can’t lead if you won’t serve, way I see it.”

“Oh, right. Sure. See your point.” But it was too late. She’d caught his furtive sidelong glance, the quavering defensiveness, the guilt in his voice. Women, all of them, harbored deep chthonic sorcery underneath those goosebumped giggles and talk-show chatterings. Not a single one could be trusted.

Silence all the way back to Lawrence.

“Wonder if mom had an excellent shopping adventure,” he’d finally gambled with a smile.

“Wonder if mom knows her husband can’t keep his cock in his pants.” (Stricken look.)

What a mouth on that kid!

Then the charges started rolling in. A ten-thousand dollar Mastercard bill in one month. One month! Mizrahi at Bergdorf’s, Armani uptown, Lulu’s down in SoHo, the statement went on and on for three laser-printed pages. Good thing he’d decided to save thirty-five bucks and forgo adding her as a supp on his American Express Platinum. She’d have bought a Tahitian villa so she could play Gauguin with her flaky art-school pals by now.

And of course he’d paid all the bills. Said nothing to his daughter. What was there to talk about? Was he supposed to negotiate the terms of his own blackmail?

Call Shaffer again. No answer again. Fine. He’d fired trainers before. Just head back to the party like nothing’s up.

Excuse me.– The proceedings hadn’t advanced a goddamn inch. –Sorry.– Christ, it’s a Movado all right. –Thank you.–

Stupid thing was, those credit-card bills barely made a dent in the monthly income. The Big Eight had become the Big Six, and soon it might be five. Mergers produce winners and losers — just like horse races. Bennett had never let a single one of his clients become one of the losers, and damn if he would let his eighteen hundred partners and ten thousand employees walk into a financial disaster. They listened to him, fortunately, and why the hell not? There were exactly two lawyers in the whole country you could trust to save your multinational conglomerate from the claws of a hostile raider or blandishments from an unwelcome corporate suitor. And both of those ultralawyers trusted Lou Bennett before anyone else. He’d been in on every big takeover fight, knew just how to spin the poison pills so a raider’s every false move would cascade into a tangled prison of tax obligations and accounting nightmares.

But mostly it was a matter of jettisoning the right assets, and fast. Sometimes it was amazing how reluctant these big, supposedly impersonal companies could be to divest themselves of the dead weight — the nonperforming dross that consumed resources needed for survival. And the future. In the end, however, they always listened; Bennett knew just where to breach the skin and how deeply.

His partners knew it as well as his clients. Every one of them remembered who had foreseen the bursting of the ’80s bubble and the sharp downturn in corporate dealmaking work. They had agreed to his proposed staff cuts only because his own practice took the brunt of it. And they barely noticed his replacement of those bodies with a small data-processing systems group, then those breathless public-relations consultants, the investment advisers, the venture capitalists … And now the firm’s consulting arms were growing faster than the vast body of green-visored accountants who inhabited partition pigpens in windowless offices spread over 92 countries.

They’d listened all right. Practically swooned when he delivered that speech at the retreat — the sermon Georgiana had penned and watched him rehearse, flushed as she heard her words exit his mouth. Suddenly rushing at him in that empty lecture hall, nearly toppling him with tie-grabbing, crotch-kneading hands, tongue piercing through startled lips. With the video camera still running! Talk about public relations!

Ninety-four percent of the firm’s partners had shown up — a new attendance record even though the retreats always took place in enticing locations, this time Grand Cayman. And even before his echo faded they agreed to decline the merger that now was beginning to drag down two competitor firms (both of which, Bennett loved to point out, had so enthusiastically mimicked his move into consulting services). Then they voted him chairman and toasted his success as the sun set over rows of palm trees and tax-sheltered bank buildings and the distant shoreline where he fucked Georgiana that night, heaving and galloping with her on the creamy sand so explosively he thought he’d pop an axle.

Yet even as his own partners showered Bennett with special-projects funding and turned his consulting groups into units and then into departments, he knew the tide was beginning to turn. Overhead disparities were growing. Specialized, independent outfits were becoming more and more survivable on their own. The cash-flow statements confirmed it. Soon corporations would again prey on one another, and his firm would shed every single one of its consultants to make room for lost bookkeeping and auditing staff. So would the rest of the Big Six. But Bennett would make sure he was the first one out, even as the competition hemorrhaged money in an overdue effort to catch up. There would be no call in his ranks for desperate mergers that merely compound the fat and hasten a fissioning death spiral into bankruptcy. Who knows — in ten years maybe the Big Six would melt into a puddle around the only Big One left.

Once, just once, he wanted to drop a little innuendo about his take. Prying finance gossips whispered the riches of big law firms and positively drooled over investment bankers’ earnings. But Big Six CPA partners? They hardly raised an inquisitive eyebrow with their relatively puny billing rates. The curious simply didn’t appreciate a basic accounting principle that equates profit with revenue minus expenses. Sure accountants’ billings were comparatively low but so was overhead, with many of the bookkeeping grunts working out of their own dens and garages, waiting twelve years for the privilege of being considered for partnership and (usually) shown the door instead. Bennett, like all the rest, firmly suppressed the temptation to boast, knowing the impact revelation could have on revenues. Client resentment was already causing the lawyers’ billing rates to max out.

So for now he could afford to write checks against the liabilities: feeding and upkeep of all the horses that lost, his wife’s idle but pricey decorating fancies, his daughter’s financial tirades. Not even the chairman of a Big Six behemoth could turn liabilities into assets, but at least he could depreciate them.

Now the speechifying was beginning. Bennett was able sit now, thank God, although he knew he would be called up soon. He glanced over at his wife as the voice on the dais intoned its syrupy monolog. She stared straight ahead, stolid as a rock. What a nice change.

The blowjobs had stopped almost immediately after the announcer declared their marriage results official. Bennett, a realist, had half expected that. And while he found himself disappointed at his wife’s rapid devaluation of sex, after the birth of their daughter, from rare delight (like a one fifty-six trotter mile) to satisfying biological imperative (like a starchy feeding) to bothersome chore (like cleaning stables), none of that particularly mattered anymore. Despite his economic sophistication Bennett could never peg an inflation rate with any accuracy, and his wife’s was no exception. First there was the pregnancy. And then the failure of her swollen flanks ever to recede, so now, nineteen years later, she still bulged like the surplus account of a ripe takeover target. (No suitors bidding.)

But it was that unending natter, the coarseness in her voice, that really got to him. Hard to believe how radically perspectives can change. From the teeming, sweaty tenements where he grew up she was like an exotic stranger from far away — a suburban prize that impressed his friends right out of his life, one by one, as they sank quietly into the routines of their parents and resented his modest social ascent. Now far away was Bogota or Kuala Lumpur, and his wife was just another refugee from another same old neighborhood not so different or distant from his own.

Only she didn’t see it that way. She refused to adapt to his success — didn’t change her plain style of dress, still called his partners “mister” this or that no matter how many times he introduced them by their first names. And whenever they would fight over the trim in the new addition or his forgotten social obligations or yet another set of repairs to their daughter’s car, that old vocabulary and cadence would reappear, reminding Bennett of exactly where he came from. Funny the way money affects people. His wife certainly knew how to spend it but without refinement; their affluence had provided her no incentive to cultivate grace, just more excuses to obsess over appointments and detail.

To Georgiana, on the other hand, it was a goddamn aphrodisiac. Sure she was expensive. So were the horses. So were most capital assets.

Bennett looked around. Maybe now he could make a break for it — slip away momentarily before his name was called! The race was definitely over. He would wait until one of the geriatrics in the back got up relieve his prostate pressure and … there! Bennett turned in his seat and began to lean forward but his wife, without so much as glancing his way, clamped his upper arm like a lobster claw and held him down. Her gaze remained forward.

Good thing, as it turned out. Now the speaker was pronouncing his name, slowly, Loooo-is Aaa-lan Benn-nnett. He winced as he heard his brother’s name, the halting syllables and clumsy curlicues from a different world and another day. Before a week ago they hadn’t exchanged a word in at least five years. Was he responsible for his brother’s misfortunes, for business dealings as inept as the family name he stubbornly refused to change? Who told him to have four kids and then decide it’s time to go into retail? Of course Bennett hadn’t invested. The numbers were doomed from the start.

He and his brother climbed onto the dais from opposite sides. Rocking back and forth on his heels, surprised at the size of the audience, Bennett began to imagine they were the claque of racing fans and horse owners who habitually crowd the plush loges at the Pegasus Club. He studied their faces. Quiet at first, sure, but the smoky lull always dissolves when the pacing car’s swinging gates release nine synchronously trotting horses into the first bend. Dragging little chariots behind them, clustering and dispersing as they enter the stretch, the horses tease each other for the lead and draw the crowd’s hush into a raucous din, cigar butts tumble from cheering lips and knees straighten as the hundred-thousand dollar equine princes round the second bend, then down the final straightaway, you can practically feel the precision thunder of thirty-six hooves clubbing the dirt, straining to silence the stinging whips but never breaking out of their prancing strides — and then it’s over. One winner. Eight losers.

Hadn’t Missy improved magnificently over the last month! Her times came down steady as if they’d been straight-line amortized, and Shaffer had managed to get the best harness driver in the business to ride her today. The purse: a million bucks, this was the Hamble-fucking-tonian! Half would belong to Bennett if Missy won. Not that the money was so important — hell, he took home that much every few months — although 500K would certainly cover this year’s expenses and justify last year’s tax deductions. Instead it was the adulation he adored. Georgiana would be watching, along with millions of others tuned into cable across the country, and they would know Lou Bennett had scratched past every obstacle and leaped every fence, never looking back, until he reached the gilded circle with no one else in sight.

And then it hit him.

Shaffer away from the phone. The entire stable deserted — at post time! Something must have happened, something big. But the vet had told him there was nothing to worry about. Just some rapid dehydration from an irritated digestive tract, dangerous for the first couple of hours but easily treated. He promised she’d be ready! Or maybe they’d scratched her, that could be it also. Found evidence of the chemicals and barred her from the race, hauled Shaffer and his staff into that grimy windowless room where they examine the finish photos and now they were interrogating, probing, accusing — he could get barred from racing, have his name splashed in contempt all over the horse sheets. That fucking vet! He’d promised it would be undetectable!

Now Bennett felt the blood draining from his face, like someone was dragging his guts down to his knees, the shivery sweat starting to dribble over his eyebrows. He could hear whispers from the front row.

An eternity of distension and dread grated past until, at last, the speaker finished. Bennett descended the stairs, battling the vertigo, he could finally get away — at least for a couple of minutes. Raced back to the men’s room as the crowd began to mill around, pulled the cellular phone’s antenna so hard he yanked the little black ball off the tip. Punched in the number anyway. The line came to life.

“Shaffer, goddamn it, what the hell …”

The tinny voice kept cutting out, he couldn’t understand it, fought with the flexing, bowing antenna until the stupid ball stayed put on top. He’d caught just one mangled syllable.

“Scratch? You say scratch?” Bennett heard his own weakness, the hoofbeats thumpthumpthumping in his chest. He could taste the acrid terror beginning to nudge the back of his throat.

Now the voice was clear. “Snatch, I said Missy snatched the lead from Europa three lengths in front of finish. We — you won, Mr. Bennett! I hope you wasn’t trying to call before, we all had to hustle out to the winner’s circle toot sweet. They started the race eight minutes early, it’s so hot out here …”

Bennett’s knees almost gave out in a spasm of relief, followed, incredibly, by pure joy. “Oh … no, it’s fine, it’s just fine. You did right.”

“Congratulations!”

Bennett looked at himself in the mirror above the sink. What a mess. How perversely appropriate.

A few minutes later he and his brother, outside in the soupy heat, stooped facing each other across the yawning rectangular cavity recently cut into the grass. With two others he’d never seen before they let out the belts that supported their mother’s casket, lowering it gently, inch by groaning inch, into the chasm. More words were spoken. Then the first spadefulls of dirt sailed through empty vertical space and scattered on the lacquered wood, crashing like surf over the silence of the gathered mourners.

She’d gone downhill so fast. It was hard to believe that twenty years ago she was accepting that industry award for her textile designs, forty years ago he and his brother were fighting for the first of her crunchy little sweetcakes to come out of the oven, even though there were always plenty for everyone. Children bury parents, new replaces the old: as inevitable, as natural and inescapable as FIFO inventory accounting, which declares the first in eternally the first out. It was a stupid, even cruel metaphor, Bennett knew. But if the shoe fits …