Published Feb 15, 2007
By Hilliard & Harris
The stench of my own vomit fills my nose. Breath comes in short, shallow gasps. Why doesn’t blabbermouth just shut the hell up and get this over with?
“You said you’ve never been deep-sea fishing, Austin, so I’m guessing you don’t know dick about giant bluefin. But when you were a kid, jigging off that pier in California, did you ever hook up with a two or three-pound bonito?”
A muddy green Atlantic Ocean surrounds us, the expanse of gentle swells empty but for the fifty-two-foot Hatteras under our feet and a dozen chum-sucking seagulls screaming overhead.
“Remember how hard those bonito fought, the way they bent the rod near double?” Mr. Blabbermouth says. “Well, imagine one of those bonito’s big cousins, one that weighs...oh, say five or six-hundred pounds. I’m talking brute force, Austin. Hooking up with a giant bluefin is like playing tug-of-war with a Harley-Davidson.”
Endless waves of dirty wet jade slap against the drifting hull. Clouds shaped like tombstones regularly block the morning sun.
“Those shoulder straps okay?” Mr. Blabbermouth says. “Not too tight, I hope.”
Bastard. I am bridled by what is known as a stand-up fishing belt and harness. Tough leather straps encircle my waist and chest as well as my shoulders. Belts, buckles, and locking brass clips anchor me inside the harness, to the pole, even to the rod-mounted Penn 130 International reel.
“You’re in luck,” he says. “A school’s headed this way.”
Think I’m out for an afternoon of fun? Sport fishing with a buddy? What if I mention nobody but nobody fishes for giant bluefin in a stand-up harness? If you have balls, big balls, you let them strap you into a fighting chair bolted to the deck, hope Big Tuna doesn’t rip that out.
Mr. Blabbermouth saying, “Here they come.”
Did I mention my wrists are bound together with duct tape?
Mr. Blabbermouth leans close to push the chrome drag lever on the Penn 130. “This will be the second time I’ve seen this happen,” he says. “Like you, a friend of mine had this drag on full when a giant bluefin hit. One second the guy’s beside me on deck, the next he’s flying over the transom, a splash in the water. You know, we never found a sign of him.”
I should have seen this coming. That’s why I can’t stand to mention Mr. Blabbermouth’s real name. It’s too damn embarrassing. Of the several wackos who tried killing me this month, only blabbermouth here applied both planning, logic, and persistence. Used allies. Oh, man, I definitely should have seen this coming.
Something heavy bumps the half-pound metal lure to which I am fatally attached. The line draws taut, digging deeper into the green rolling swells. Eternity tugs on my shoulder straps.
“Looks like a hook-up,” Mr. Blabbermouth says.
And I thought life was shitty two weeks ago.
Two Weeks Earlier...
The big thing about living in a truck-mounted camper, you bump your head a lot. So when Luis’s chef Cruz wakes me up with repeated loud knocks, I crack my skull against the tin headliner for the third time in two days. Maybe I need a crash helmet.
“You cannot do the sleep in our parking lot, Austin.”
I rub my sore head and peek through the camper’s wallet-size plastic rear window. Either it’s still dark outside or my brain is beginning to swell.
“I say this a hundred times,” Cruz shouts. “You do not listen. So now I say this...if you use our parking spaces for the bedroom again, I will rat you to the federales.”
Cruz has an edge on him this morning. Central New Jersey being so much colder than his former home near Vera Cruz, Mexico, I suspect it’s the fall weather. Most cool days he doesn’t even bother coming outside, let alone threaten police action. Wait until it snows.
I open the back door and give him the famous, full-boat Carr grin. “Speaking of rats, amigo, can I shower in the employee dressing room?”
Cruz’s eyes shine like black lacquered furniture. He doesn’t want to, but he can’t help liking me. It’s the famous Carr smile. Plus, it helps that every dollar my ex-wife doesn’t garnish is spent at Luis’s restaurant eating Cruz’s delightfully gut-burning Mexican cuisine.
“Use by non-employees is non-allowed,” he says. “And you force me to declare that one bueno stock tip does not make me your bitch forever, Austin. Perhaps if you provided another sure thing. A stock with listed options so I can leverage my asses.”
Wow. Despite the obvious language problems, Cruz is wasting no time learning the secrets of American capitalism. Maybe I should make a pitch for his account.
“Sure things are hard to come by, compadre. But something’s coming soon. Maybe next week.”
He grunts. “You have been suggesting such events since Easter. And now summer is gone. For official.”
I notice the plastic lid on the cup of coffee he carries has an unbroken seal. “Is that coffee for me?” I ask.
“No way ho-zay.”
Ha. Cruz never learns. He has no defense against the famous Carr charm. Over the next five minutes, repeated smiles and a lengthy account of my daughter Beth’s all-star performance at last night’s swim meet rescue Cruz from the Dark Side. He especially likes the story of how I snuck into the beach club wearing only my Speedos.
I take my time drinking his coffee. When every drop is savored, I shower in the employee dressing room, put on a clean shirt and tie, and comb my hair with Hollywood gel.
My new Monday through Friday transformation routine now complete--homeless bum to ace salesman--I point my camper toward Branchtown.
Through my ‘93 Chevy pickup’s bug-stained windshield, I watch the odd-shaped line of store-fronts pass, architecture from fifteen different decades, every building mean and dirty despite last night’s rain.
As they have across centuries, Branchtown’s sidewalks bustle with generations of immigrants and the displaced. First the African-Americans, then the Irish and Italians and Germans, now Latinos and Chinese. A mini third world, chasing the American Dream along Central New Jersey’s Atlantic coastline.
I think of a story my ex-wife Susan’s grandmother told me about prohibition, how two rival smuggling gangs dueled one winter night on the Navasquan River, their ice boats circling and firing shots at each other until dawn. The gun battle kept half of Branchtown awake all night, yet no one called the cops, not even when daylight revealed three dead bodies on the ice.
“Faccia rozzo,” Susan’s Italian grandmother said when I first moved here from California and she told me the ice boat story. “Branch-a-town is a hard face, Austin. You be the hard face, too.”
My name’s Austin Carr. I’m a stockbroker. The slick expensive business cards in my wallet say I’m a Senior Financial Consultant for Shore Securities, Inc., Members of the American Association of Securities Dealers, but I’m really just a salesman and I work for myself. Straight commission. If I don’t sell, I don’t eat.
“Another margarita, Luis.”
A lot of people in my line of work call themselves investment counselors. They wear two-thousand-dollar Italian suits, carry alligator attache’ cases, think and talk about themselves as professionals like doctors and lawyers. In truth, we’re closer akin to used car dealers, only more dangerous because losing your life savings is a tad worse than getting stuck with a leaky transmission.
It’s hard to sport illusions about yourself or your profession when you live in a camper. And I’ve always treated my clients with honesty, to the point of aggravating every sales manager I’ve ever had. Even so, keeping my self respect, I have not been thinking about this job in a favorable light. In fact, in the years since the market crashed, ruining my sales numbers, my finances, and more recently, any chance of being with my two children, Ryan and Beth, I’ve been wracking my brain, trying desperately to figure another way to earn a living.
“Another double?” Luis asks.
Although no solution to my dilemma has yet presented itself, I’ve discovered it helps to ruminate in a positive setting: Luis’s Mexican Grill on Broad Street in Branchtown. The decor reminds me of home, Los Angeles, and Luis has an authentico Mexican chef, Cruz. Best of all, Luis works the bar himself every day.
“You are not going to work today?” Luis says.
“Careful, Luis. Your query borders on insult. In fact, I have already been to work, only to discover that my monster client delayed our scheduled discourse until this afternoon. I merely returned here to spend some quality time with you and Cruz.”
“I recommend this be your final cocktail,” Luis says.
Dealing with numbers all the time is an ache in the ass, definitely, but my biggest problem with being a stockbroker is having to spend all day on the money machine, dialing for dollars, calling busy people at the wrong time, apologizing because the back office screwed up a check, downplaying the risks of an investment to exaggerate the benefits, dancing investors from one asset to another so I can take part of their principal as commission. To be good at stockbrokering, you have to be slightly larcenous.
I lick the wet salt from the rim of my still empty margarita glass. Of course I never worried about little things like that while I was netting eight to ten-thousand dollars a month. It’s only been since my income dropped by more than half, and mainly since I lost physical contact with my children, Ryan and Beth, that I search for the social significance of securities sales.
Luis discovers the bar bottle of Herradura Gold is empty. He slides left and reaches underneath the counter, moving with a prizefighter’s cat-like quickness, sureness of step.
Today and every day, he shows off his Popeye muscles in a white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up. A vest and tight-fitting black slacks accentuate his narrow hips and punching-bag shoulders. His high forehead and aquiline nose speak of European ancestry, but the black piercing eyes give him a distinct Native American quality as well.
Luis cracks open a new bottle. In short, my favorite bartender is an hombre. And while I know this sounds girlish, you feel safe sitting at his bar. It’s like being ten years old again and having your sixteen-year-old brother on the playground with you. It’s unlikely the other ten-year-olds will pick on you, but if they do, it won’t be a problem long.
Luis deposits my new margarita on a clean paper napkin. “Are you hungry?” he asks. “Cruz made ablondigas soup this morning.”
The other thing I’d like to say about Luis might be racist, a stereotype, but here it is anyway: I grew up in the eastern, Mexican-American section of Los Angeles. Ever since grammar school I’ve admired the code of honor and fierce pride with which so many Hispanics are raised. Call me a jerk for saying it, but that’s been my experience.
“Bring me a plate of Cruz’s chili Colorado when you get a chance,” I tell Luis. “And get ready to make me another margarita. These doubles are tasty.”
Luis walks away shaking his head. I wonder if he’s disappointed I didn’t order the ablondigas soup. Then I wonder why I respect his opinion so much, why his thoughts are so important to me. Is it because Luis stands as an island of sincerity in my world of lies, deception, and bullshit? Gotta be. I bet Luis never told a fib in his life.
A cup of fresh coffee in my hand, I spy my monster in the glass conference room, his back to me as I stride across the main sales floor.
Standing or sitting at neatly rowed desks, pleading or lecturing into sleek black telephones and headsets, three dozen off-Wall Street brokers fill the barn-size room with birdlike chatter, some loud and incessant, others soft and rhythmical.
It’s good to hear the phones busy for a change, but I don’t have time to find out why. I have to focus on this monster client waiting for me in the conference room. He’s old. He takes my advice. He keeps half a million in his checking account.
Do I sound crass? Less than totally interested in my client’s welfare? Let me explain. My alimony and child support payments were established by New Jersey’s family court during more lucrative times, and for the last eighteen months I have failed to earn my monthly nut. I’ve had my Maxima repossessed, my salary attached, and my visiting rights temporarily suspended. I bought that twelve-year-old Chevy pick-up with the rusty camper last month because another landlord tossed my ass in the street.
I glide into Shore’s glass conference room and pull the door closed behind me. The warm friendly smile on my face is a product of seven years training and experience, plus the heart-twisting desire to earn my way back into the lives of my children.
“What a pleasure it is to see you two,” I say.
“Good to see you, too, Austin. I think you met my wife Kelly once before.”
I’ll never forget. “Yes. Last year.”
My client Gerry Burns thinks he’s a Mexican cowboy, although I doubt the old geezer spends much time on horseback. He’s about five and a half feet tall and carries over two hundred and fifty pounds. I get a kick out of his lizard-skin boots, the Mexican silver and turquoise belt buckle, the pearl-gray Stetson, but it’s the young wife who makes my heart beat faster. Kelly has more curves than the racetrack at Le Mans, shoulder-length red hair, and green eyes as bright as a “go” signal in downtown traffic. I met her when she dropped off a check. Something clicked, too, but I never followed up. Not with my monster’s wife. Jesus. Although I still have a boner.
“Either of you care for coffee?” I ask.
Gerry and Kelly both decline my invitation, so I situate myself behind the conference room’s primary piece of furniture, an eight-foot-long mahogany desk it took four brutes to move in here five years ago. An imposing throne I doubt will ever be moved again. Kelly’s eying me like she knows about the boner. I’m telling you. Something clicked with her, too.
“Business still slow?” Gerry asks.
Slow ain’t the word for it. Every investor in my book is sitting on their assets. Why? Because the Dow Jones Industrial Average hasn’t recovered from the one-two-three punch of a collapsed tech bubble, September Eleventh, and a sudden tripling in the price of oil. Wall Street pretends things are getting better, but the smart money’s buying guns and canned food.
“Business is picking up,” I say.
Gerry nods. “Glad to hear it, because the reason for my visit today is not going to do your sales production any good.”
You know that loosey-goosey feeling you get when a station logo interrupts your television show and a serious male voice says, “Stay tuned for an important news bulletin.” That queasiness in your stomach? The tingling at the back of your neck because you don’t know if you’re going to hear about a snow storm or thermonuclear war?
“This isn’t easy for me to say,” Gerry adds.
Oh, come on, Gerry. Spit it out. Sweet Jesus. Seconds ago I’m tickled because I think my monster is about to spend some of his half-million in cash, and now I’m in a panic, terrified by words no one wants to speak.
“I’m dying of pancreatic cancer,” he says.