On the wall of Dan Sandler’s office were four lines of a poem written in ornate calligraphy on thick paper, displayed in a frame and hung alongside his University of Chicago MBA, his CFA certificate, and pictures of Dan posing mid-handshake with a variety of luminaries—from President George H. W. Bush to Barry Bonds to Alan Greenspan. It was the first time Gomer had entered this sanctum; he would head back under the Hudson for his 5 p.m. bar shift in just a couple of hours. A brisk secretary who looked like a super model had installed him in the office and told him Mr. Sandler would be arriving shortly. He watched her and her long lean legs walk out the door. He was wearing his only suit. His jaw ached from grinding his teeth. He leaned closer to the wall and read:
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
The words rang an old bell that summoned the memory of Miss Andretti, his English teach his junior year in high school. The sudden reissuance of her firm, glorious tits into his mind calmed his grinding jaw and replaced this anxious action with a twinge in his pants. He made a mental note to ask James Philbin if he knew what happened to Miss Andretti. High School was only ten years ago; she might still be hot.
“Robert Frost,” Dan said, suddenly right behind him. “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.”
“I think I read it in high school,” Gomer responded.
“The poem is a piece of shit,” Dan said. “But these lines are good. Reminds us there’s no rest in this business. Fucking Frost shoulda wrote the whole poem about that. About how you don’t paid if you sit on your ass in the cold to take in a fuckin view. Take a seat, Gomer.”
Gomer sat in one of the stiff, deep leather chairs that faced Dan at his desk. Behind him Manhattan was spread out like wings.
“Whaddya say, Gomer. You ready for the lovely, dark deep woods? Cause if you do it right, I promise you, you will get zero sleep.”
“Like I told you the other night,” Gomer said. “I want it. I just need to make the right connections.”
“Consider yourself connected, kid,” Dan said. “I like you. What’s going to happen is you’re gonna train. Then you’re gonna intern. While you’re doing all that you’re going study your little ass off and get a CFA. You know what that is? It’s better than an MBA in this business. Though, gotta say, the MBA don’t hurt.” Dan leaned his elbows on his desk. His eyes were quick and blue. His white shirt was crisp against his Hamptons tan. His hair was thinning at the temples creating a pronounced widow’s peak that gave his severe countenance a touch of maleficence. “Then, Gomer, you’re gonna make millions of dollars.”
Gomer nodded, his pulse quickening. His nervousness was supplanted by excitement. He hadn’t really thought of Wall Street when he was casting around for something to do with his life. Technically they weren’t even on Wall Street, but on Madison Avenue. But providence had somehow brought Dan Sandler to the dive bar he and James had worked at since college and offered Gomer a door to walk through. Someone was always opening a door for him. He never really had to want anything—things just presented themselves, borne to him on various sorts of silver trays.
It all went exactly as Dan said it would. He did make millions of dollars. Almost three and a half million in just under three years. Nearly all of it immediately sunk into his apartment and the material trappings of his life. He subsisted on credit while he waited for his next year’s bonus. The last bonus never came.
When the shit hit the fan, that day in early September 2008, Gomer found Dan on the sidewalk out in front of the building. They’d eliminated their whole division, the remaining banks hoovering up what was left of their portfolios for pennies on the dollar, JP Morgan swooping in like a dark angel of dubious salvation and taking ownership of what remained. Dan squeezed his shoulder, offered him those reassuring words (“I have a way through this.”) and then he’d walked into the foot traffic on Madison, holding his suit jacket balled in his hand. On the sidewalk he saw his former coworkers with bankers boxes that held scant personal effects. Security guards stood sternly among those divested of their employment, watching for any funny business. A man sat cross-legged on the sidewalk with his elbows on his knees, his face in his hands, weeping.
He spoke to Dan weekly in the first months after the layoffs. He was talking to Dan on the phone while people carried off his possessions and handed him sweaty balls of cash. He talked to Dan while he sat on his couch, the only piece of furniture left in his living room, with a stolen dog, eating a pizza and watching a bootleg of The Dark Knight on a torrent site, actively envious of Bruce Wayne. Every time Dan said the same thing: Soon. Not yet, but soon. Everything was coming together. “You’ll be the first one I call, Kühl.”
But Dan hadn’t answered his calls in weeks. Gomer called just enough to portray a proactive interest—he knew Dan would appreciate a proactive interest—but not so much that he seemed desperate or needy. Gomer looked down at the twin Prince Charles spaniels he’d lifted off a chauffeur recruited to an unfamiliar task in a moment of need. That poor guy lost his job. But Gomer had negotiated a $2,500 reward for their return, just as soon as their owner got back from Aruba in two nights. He was still three grand shy of the eight thousand he needed, and Tanya’s end of business Friday deadline was days past now. He’d come to dread the shrill cry of his Blackberry. So when it squawked he cringed and was about to silence it, when he saw Dan’s name displayed there on the screen.
“Goooooommmmmer!” He said. He sounded happy. Or drunk. “Man, things have been blowin’ up. In a seriously serious way.”
“I haven’t heard from you,” Gomer said cautiously. There was something else in Dan’s voice he didn’t recognize. He’d been especially attuned to Dan’s cadences and moods for almost five years now. And this sounded unfamiliar.
Dan cleared his throat on the other end of the phone, like he’d just taken too large a slug of scotch. “Meet me at Eleven Madison Park at 8:30. I’ll tell ya all about it.” A pause; a swish; another throat clearing. “It’s a rocket, baby. We’re gonna ride a rocket.”
The phone went dark. Gomer looked at the time: 7:45. He’d have to shower and get into his one remaining suit in the next twenty minutes if he was going to make it to Madison Square by 8:30. He leapt up as if zapped in the seat, scattering the Prince Charles Spaniels who dashed ahead of him into the bedroom. Now, he thought. Now is when it turns around.
Gomer walked into the restaurant, which was crisp in white linen and glass, shining orbs of light. He was grateful he left his ratty new parka at home; it was worth shivering his way here on the subway to not wear such a deplorable garment in such a lovely place. He paused to take it all in—the sleek beauty of it. It set the stage for money to be spent on ephemeral indulgences. Small gorgeous food on large plates that the body would forget about the moment it passed the tongue. Old bottles of wine tipped carefully into crystal decanters to be swirled and swallowed into the abyss of a person’s gullet, never to be seen again. The insinuation of the waiter who was never truly visible, but never unavailable, his quiet delicate hands folded together in anticipation of your latest momentary desire. A bubble of happiness rose in his chest. He was back. No more $1 pizza slices. No more cheap beer. It was back to steak and scotch now. Crème brulee and cabernet. He hadn’t fully realized how he missed the luxury of not caring about the tally of the check.
A beautiful hostess beamed at him from behind her podium. She had a long neck that held up a plunging halter-top dress that knew its place on the right side of the line between classy and trashy. He could see the perfect curve of her breasts inside the V of the neckline. He told her Dan’s name and she smiled and led him to a table in the corner. He walked behind her, watching the sinew of her bare back twitch as she walked, the muscles of her well-defined ass moving the fabric of her skirt. He entertained the image of her naked before him, her hair tumbling across his mattress, her smile saucy and ready. Of course he couldn’t take anyone back to his apartment now, with the two spaniels and no furniture. Maybe she had a place they could go to.
She gracefully turned a hand over, presenting to him Dan Sandler at the two-top, his elbows on the table, his eyes focused on his BlackBerry. She smiled and disappeared like smoke in a breeze.
“Gomer,” Dan said, half standing, his hand extended. “Siddown, kid.”
It was all Gomer could do to prevent himself from embracing him. Seeing him here and now, in person, smiling blearily at him, he became acutely aware of how he had been flailing in dark water. His gratitude just for the fact of his presence here in this perfect restaurant, where together they were going to make something out of nothing.
“Dan, great to see you.” He kept his voice even, betraying none of the emotion that was gliding fast under his surface.
The waiter materialized with an unobtrusive greeting. And asked Gomer if he would like a drink.
“Whatever he’s having,” Gomer said, aiming a finger at Dan’s large glass of scotch. He smiled at Dan and waited for the glorious news of a business venture that would pile upon him great scads of money.
Dan continued to stare down at his BlackBerry, his thumbs going furiously over the keys, his brow furrowed in concentration. Gomer waited. His scotch arrived. He picked it up, took a magnificent gulp of it, and then basked in the glow it spread through his chest. Dan continued to tap, tap, tap. Gomer watched him. Again, he didn’t quite recognize this version of Dan. He was grayer. Where the Dan of six months ago was sharp edges and crisp lines, this Dan was rumpled and harried. His face had a florid quality. A lock of wayward hair stuck to his forehead. Gomer recognized the suit he wore—he’d been with him at the tailor when it was measured—the charcoal gray with the barely there pinstripe. But his tie was loose and had a spot on it from some food or drink being dribbled. The cuffs of the shirt that poked out the ends of his coat sleeves were dingy. He was only wearing one cufflink. There was a bleed of yellow around his collar. Gomer took another large drink of his scotch and waited.
Finally Dan put down his phone and smiled at Gomer. “Christ, Kühl, you need a haircut.”
Gomer ran his hand through his unruly hair. The barber was not an acceptable expense these days. “I know. Soon. So, what’s been happening?” It was a double entendre of a question. He was hungry for specifics, what was it Dan had been working on all these months. I have a way through this, he’d said. Gomer had spent hours trying to imagine what that could be and hadn’t come up with anything and felt ashamed about his lack of imagination.
“Just the hustle,” Dan said. He drained his scotch and raised the empty glass in the air with a meaningful eyebrow waggle in the direction of a waiter. “You ready to get back on top, kid?”
Gomer leaned forward and arranged his face into a manifestation of purpose and determination. “I am ready. I’ve been ready for months. What do you need me to do?”
“I’m heading up mortgages at a boutique house with some big clients,” Dan said. “I’m not at liberty to divulge who or what at this point in time, but very soon. Weeks, if not days from now, I’ll be announcing my new right-hand man.”
Gomer waited, not daring to breathe.
“You will be my chief trader, Gomer.”
Gomer nodded. Trader he knew. He wasn’t sure if “chief trader” was an actual title at this new place, or if it was just Dan’s way of telling him how important he’d be to the organization’s profitability. He’d sort that out soon enough. He took a sip of his scotch to hide his smile.
“I’m in,” he said. “Of course.” He had questions. He was bursting with them. He felt like a kid interrogating his mother about the presents under the tree three days before Christmas. Mainly he wanted to ask about money. But he knew you don’t talk about money. You just make it and you spend it and what you spent it on was how you talked about how much you had. He decided it didn’t matter what the base salary was or what the bonus structure would be. It was more than what he had currently. He could stop with the ridiculous dog-stealing scheme and get back to his real life.
“Excellent. I just need a few business days to get some ducks in a fuckin row, then I’ll make the announcement and you’ll start.”
Gomer smiled openly. “Perfect. I’ll be ready.”
“Yeah, you will, kid. Okay, let’s eat, I’m starved.”
Throughout his short tenure among the moneyed, Gomer had eaten some fine meals. He’d sat for hours over prime cuts of meat and thousand-dollar bottles of wine. Rich desserts, cognac that was served from Waterford crystal bottles, special dishes from the chef himself. A table at Per Se, Momofuku, Babbo, Homestead Steakhouse, Blue Hill, encircled by compatriots, talking shit, flirting with the waitress, drunk and unaware what how privileged he was. But for all that he’d enjoyed over those few years, the meal he and Dan shared at Eleven Madison Square was the best he’d ever had. Not because the food was better than so many others (though it was excellent), but because it marked the beginning of what was coming next; because the months of lack added new savor to the food. It was delicious because it was the end of his struggling. He’d keep his apartment, he’d put furniture back in it. Hell, maybe he’d sell it and buy something bigger and put furniture in that one. He’d slip the hostess his business card and he’d take her out for a night she’d never forget, wow her with tales of the business deals that populated his lively workdays, make known his skyward trajectory, and punctuate every story with money. Piles of money. Paychecks he couldn’t wait to spend. Bonuses so big his heart would palpitate with a nameless excitement.
He stabbed up incredible forkfuls of foie gras and filet mignon and pork belly, flavors exploding in his mouth. This is what success tastes like, he thought. I’ll never take it for granted again.
He and Dan fell into an easy banter that recalled their earliest days together, when Gomer was snug under his wing, being groomed and guided. He listened happily as Dan told his own tales of high-wire finance, even though Gomer had heard them all before. Deals on the verge of collapse rescued only by Dan’s prowess and charisma. Millions of dollars multiplied into tens of millions of dollars with one phone call. It was all money. It ruled every conversation. Even when they were talking about women or coworkers or sports, it was always in the context of money. Gomer had missed talking about money, of which he had scant little. Eight thousand dollars. That was the only dollar figure he could focus on. He wondered if Dan could give him an advance on his salary. He wondered if he could even bring himself to ask. He’d think about it. There was still a chance he could scrounge the last couple thousand together before Tanya Flowers came for him.
Gomer stopped seeing the disheveled and unquestionably drunk man that sat across from him. He saw his mentor.
“Howya getting by?” Dan asked from the brim of his glass that was full of a velvety French wine.
Part of him wanted to brag about how he’d scraped by stealing dogs—it was an audacious, resourceful act to take, he thought, and he wanted Dan’s approval. But he also felt a shame about it. It was so far beneath where he was, where he was soon going to be again. He took a sip of wine.
“Barely,” he said. “I’ve barely been getting by.”
Dan nodded sagely. “These are tough times. You gotta get creative. But I hope you didn’t resort to bartending again.”
Gomer shook his head and rolled his eyes as if bartending was just about the worst thing a person could decide to do. “I sold everything,” he said. Testing the waters here. Pressing the edges of his desperation up against Dan, to see where the pushback was.
Dan nodded some more. “I hear ya. Sold my house on St. Martin. Fucking got fucked on that, but whaddya gonna do?”
This set Gomer’s jaw to grinding again. He’d been to the house on St. Martin. He easily got three mill for that place. Three mill would set Gomer up beautifully for two full years. An embittered part of him was furious that Dan didn’t offer to help him, even a little. Didn’t carve even ten grand out of that three million to tell him it was going to be all right. Is it possible Dan wasn’t aware of how bad it had gotten?
“I sold everything,” Gomer repeated. “All I have left is a couch and a mattress.”
Dan shook his head and took a sip of his wine. “Tough times,” he said again.
“I’ve maxed out all my credit. I’m down to the last of my cash.”
Dan replaced his head shaking with head nodding, as if empathizing from a different direction now. “You gotta do what you gotta do.”
Gomer teeth mashed together. “I’ve been stealing dogs.” He slung it out across the table, intending it to be a slap.
Dan’s eyes cut up towards his, sharp suddenly. “What did you say?”
His heart beat with delight at the confession. It was out now. Laid out like a patient for Dan and his expertise to diagnose: desperate and stupid? Or creative and proactive?
“What did you say?” Dan asked again.
“I said I’m stealing dogs. I steal them and then I return them and the people give me rewards.”
Dan looked at him. His icy eyes furrowed in confusion. Gomer’s teeth resumed their self-abuse. He remembered when one look at Dan and it was like the thoughts zipped from his brain to Gomer’s, so fluent he was in his smallest gestures and expressions. But this look was nothing but static.
It was a guffaw that made Gomer finally understand what a guffaw was. The sound whiplashed Dan’s head forward as he slapped both hands on the table, setting the china and crystal and flatware into a jangling tremble. Gomer stared; what was happening?
“I don’t remember you being such a joker, Kuhl!” Dan gasped. “Ruthless, calculating, smart—but never funny.”
Gomer was confused by the praise with the sideways swipe at his lack of humor. He had always been accused of being too serious.
“Dan, I’m not joking,” he said, leaning in, speaking quietly to minimize the loudness of Dan’s booming laugh and the herky jerk of the table as he shifted in his seat. The crowd in this restaurant were the sort he’d steal a dog from.
Dan’s peals of laughter continued and he slammed his palm into the table again. “Stealing dogs! And then what? Ransom?”
“No, rewards,” Gomer said. But there it was, stuck in his brain now: ransom.
Dan’s laughter subsided into chuckles and he tossed his napkin on the table. “You’re killing me, Kuhl. Take that shit on the road.” He lurched to standing, knocking the table again. “I gotta drain the snake.”
While Dan sidled past, Gomer glared at his wine glass, face burning. Dan had no idea what he’d been through. How he’d sacrificed. He knew stealing dogs was insane. Of course it was. But that was what it had come to. He thought again about the three million bucks in Dan’s bank accounts.
Then slowly he unclenched, remembering the job Dan was going to give him—his real salvation. He should have known that Dan wouldn’t understand. Dan had reached a whole other echelon. His view was just different. It was better to have an agent up there, a champion who would help pull him up. Gomer shamed himself for being angry. There was a job on his horizon. He didn’t even care how much it paid. He would fight and claw his way up, like he did at Bear-Sterns. He may not be funny, but he knew his way around a mortgages trade. He’d be the biggest swinging dick Dan’s new little firm ever saw. It was starting over—but it was a start.
His jaw relaxed and he took another sip of his wine. It was better Dan thought the dog stealing was a joke. Then he could just pretend it never happened. Paychecks were coming. He looked toward the hostess stand where he saw her long neck bent gracefully as she spoke on the phone. One of the waiters sidled toward her and she smiled at him. Gomer felt a disquiet that he would have called jealousy if he were the type to get jealous. That waiter was going to be history in a few weeks. He decided taking that hostess home would be the first reward of his rediscovered life. He’d deposit that first paycheck, come here for dinner and he’d leave with her. He felt his confidence bone up just thinking about it.
The waiter appeared like a specter and folded Dan’s rumpled napkin into a neat triangle while somehow simultaneously making a dessert menu appear before Gomer’s eyes.
“The Dutch chocolate and raspberry sorbetto is particularly nice with the Laffite,” the waiter said softly as he topped Gomer’s and Dan’s glasses up with what remained of the decanter.
“Two more scotches,” Gomer said. “No dessert.” Two grown men sharing a dessert—this was not done.
With a crispy nod the waiter vaporized with the dessert menus.
Gomer turned his head in the direction of the bathrooms and worried about Dan. It was clear he was quite drunk. That could cause a guy to linger in the men’s room, sometimes. He wondered if he should go check.
The restaurant buzzed with the pleasant noise of polite people. He returned to his earlier contentment. Maybe he could ask Dan to front him the couple thousand he needed to hit the eight grand mark. With Tanya Flowers off his back for a couple of weeks he could concentrate on getting his life in order in preparation for starting work. There would probably be some white papers to read, other research. He’d have to buckle down. He’d get a haircut. He’d start running again. He didn’t like how snug his suit felt. Like he was one arm gesture away from splitting a seam. He drank his scotch.
He glanced at his phone to check the time (he’d long ago pawned his Rolex). Dan had been gone awhile now. He’d never seen him quite so drunk. He decided to walk back to the gentleman’s and make sure he wasn’t passed out on the toilet. Someone had to pay for all this, after all.
Gomer was reaching for the men’s room door to pull it open when it suddenly flew open, missing his face by a scant inch. A busboy was shoving past him with a stricken look on his face.
“Excuse me,” Gomer said in the voice he saved for errant doormen and lost taxi drivers. It had been months since he’d used it; it pleased him to employ it again. But the busboy didn’t pause to be more fully chastened. He pulled open the door and froze.
There, sticking out from under the door of a stall, were Dan Sandler’s pale hairy legs, his Brioni pants around his ankles, socks sagging. Gomer was terrified of going any further in, so he stood there dumbly in the doorway, staring at Dan’s New & Lingwood brogues, akimbo on the fine tiled floor.
The manager shoved past him, followed by the busboy. The manager, a white man, Gomer noticed, spoke perfect Spanish to the busboy as they struggled with the door of the stall together. The busboy answered, the fear and disgust evident in his voice, even though Gomer had no idea what he was saying. The manager whipped his head toward Gomer.
“What is his name?”
Gomer dragged his eyes away from the shoes and stared at the manager.
“His name, what is your companion’s name?”
Companion. What was that supposed to mean? “Dan,” he croaked. “Dan Sandler.”
The manager extended a long finger at Gomer and fixed him with a pointed glare. “Sir, I’ll ask you not to leave the restaurant.”
“What?” Gomer’s voice felt strange in his head. He looked back at Dan’s shoes. The manager and the busboy each grabbed an ankle and pulled Dan out from under the stall. They all winced at the unmistakable sound of his head thunking to the floor.
Gomer continued to stand in the doorway and stare helplessly at Dan’s skinny pale torso, shirttails out, little cock withered against a slack shank of thigh, pubic hair gray. He hated noticing these details. He dragged his eyes to Dan’s face; his eyes were glassy, his lips purple.
“Call 911,” the manager yelled as he loosened Dan’s tie and felt his neck for a pulse. Gomer didn’t move; he couldn’t move. His BlackBerry was on the table, sitting next to his scotch, back where the world was still some version of normal.
“I...I left my phone on the table,” Gomer said.
“Motherfucker,” the manager hissed something in Spanish and leapt up. He turned back to Gomer. “Do not fucking leave. Sir.” He punctuated his words with jabs of his long finger.
The busboy was gently slapping Dan’s cheeks and whispering what sounded like a prayer. Gomer backed slowly out the door. He returned to their table. There was his phone and his scotch, side by side like companions awaiting his return, oblivious to the changed world. He downed his scotch then Dan’s as the walls were splashed red by the ambulance outside. You heard sirens all day long in New York. He supposed one day you’d be wherever they were going.
He slipped his phone in his pocket, and while everyone watched the paramedics rush into the men’s room, he walked past the hostess stand where the lovely hostess stood with her hands clenched at her lovely throat.
Braced by scotch and shock, the night was not so cold now.