Cleaning Up (short story)

Note: I originally wrote this at a writers’ retreat in Spoleto, Italy, in the summer of 1999. It was an idyllic week where all I had to do was hang out with other writers, eat wonderful Umbrian cuisine, attend the occasional class and take part in various writing exercises. I was living in Slovenia at the time, and I expected that the creative writing I’d be doing would involve my time in Central Europe. Instead, curious things popped up that surprised no one more than me. I ended up exorcising the demons of Long Island and my youth and paying a certain kind of tribute to a certain milieu that I had observed, from a distance, for quite a while. I’m presenting it here with only slight revisions from the original. And need I add — it’s fiction, folks.

Ah, the ’90s, a vanished world indeed…

Cleaning Up

or

Past Performance is No Guarantee

By Wes Eichenwald

In the end, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. You know how things turn out that way sometimes? That was the way this turned out. Of course, at the time it didn’t seem that way. I’d only had the job for two months. You have to remember, I was the youngest associate portfolio manager in the history of the Falcon Vulture Fund (“Object: Aggressive small-to-medium-cap growth with long-term capital appreciation”). I was 25, but it wasn’t like I was a novice; I’d started with Bear Fergrebers as a summer intern my senior year in high school and came back every summer when I was at Cornell. I’d done my two years analyzing junk bonds, and when the opening came up I applied for it and aced out a couple of more senior people, and boy were they pissed.

But screw them. I heard that Mahoney and Lesh were whispering that I got the job only because I was a woman and reasonably attractive, and it would look good in the annual report photo to show diversity in action. But the real reason Stan Hall hired me was because I was a rising star, and I could make them a hell of a lot of bonus bucks faster than either of those aging bluffer bozos. Presentability was a bonus and I’m not timid about exploiting it when the opportunity strikes, but they don’t hand out jobs like associate portfolio manager on the basis of how hot you look. So. We’re clear?

Okay. So this is a big step for me. I’m on the team! I’m about to go from making 75 or 80 to a hundred and thirty-five, plus 60 or 65 bonus if the fund does anything like it did last year. And this is just my first year. Plus, it’s the mid ‘90s and it’s a great time for anybody in the industry except for morons like gold bugs. Tech and growth are the buzz words. Clinton and the Fed have got their acts together and everyone’s beginning to wake up to the fact that it’s time to ride the greed train. Consumer demand’s pumpin’, investor libidos are jumpin’, the juices are runnin’, the hot money’s leavin’ the sidelines, everyone’s screamin’ me, me, I wanna play too, it’s inflow city; you remember. Of course, past performance is no guarantee of future results. Duh, that’s the way I like it.

So this is my dream job, for my mid-20s anyway. I’m directly under Gordon, the lead portfolio manager. He’d been with Falcon Vulture for 12 years, and I’d heard rumors that he’d forced out Pierce when Pierce got a little too curious about the very cozy relationship Gordon seemed to be having with the CFO of a certain telcom we were very heavily into. But for whatever reason, Pierce had moved on to Vanguard and now it was Gordon, me and Leonard, who was 48, thin and nervous and an easily snowable bean counter, and none of us were especially sad to see Pierce’s ample ass hitting the door on the way out. I had the feeling Gordon would have liked to get a little something going with me aside from discussing P/E ratios and market caps, but he was too smart to try. Oh, Gordon was good-looking in a starchy early-forties Lutheran sort of way, but he was very married, he knew I was taken (thank you, Seth dear), and he knew I had the number of my high-school pal Donna the hotshot tort lawyer on my speed dial. She was one of the only friends I had who really understood me. My relatives, forget it. Most of them thought I was a stockbroker. Like I cared. You know relatives. Brokers are OK, if predictable. Every day they ask their clients the same magic question: What do you want to do? What do you want to do now? And these days, they were all getting the same answer.

I’ve always been good at making money. Ever since I was 12 and went to Belmont Racetrack with my family and my best friend Karen, and I won $300 on two races, my career path’s been set. When I was 15 I spent the summer typing invoices at my dad’s factory in Commack. He ran the place fairly well, and made enough to put me and Michael through college without worrying about it, but I decided that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life churning out cardboard boxes, I wanted to be in the city. I was young, I needed the juice. If you’ve ever been to Commack, you wouldn’t blame me. Safe things bore me, I guess. Seth was safe, but we’d been together for so long and I hadn’t run into anybody better; besides, my folks had practically adopted him.

At this point he’s in his second year interning at NYU Medical Center – he’s in neurology – and we’re living in the starter condo in Little Neck. Seth is thrilled for me. He’s self-confident. You think I am, you should see him. He always said he wanted to marry a woman with a career and didn’t want to come home to somebody who spent her whole day shopping, lunching and complaining. (Actually, I’ve heard this rap 50 times and it’s really gone past the point of annoyance.) But we’d been engaged for over a year and my folks and his were constantly asking us when’s the date, when’s the date, and I finally figured it was time I started asking too. So after the promotion we manage to have a dinner at the Four Seasons and set it for next May – which is nearly a year off, but you know how you have to plan and plan. Plus, of course we’re both working like slaves and coordinating our schedules is next to impossible.

So. Is the stage set? The stage is set. Well, it’s a given that I work late, ‘til 8:30 or 9 most nights, at least, and you know how toward the end of those shifts the fluorescent lights seem to glow so hard you have to turn most of them off, and things get really lonely and weird sometimes, you start to wonder what the hell you’re doing there and your guard slowly lets itself down? And you really start wishing you had some company but you can’t really wander up and down the hallways searching for companionship, right? Because everybody who’s around that late has a good reason for it, or at least wants it to look that way. But there was this janitor. Every night at 8:30 he’d come around to empty the wastebaskets, vacuum a bit, mop the bathrooms and maybe give the glass tops of the conference tables a little shine.

His name was Rodrigo. I didn’t ask him, it was on his breast pocket. You know, red script on gray. And him I noticed right away. Seth is nice-looking. This guy is gorgeous. The dangerous type. Late 20s, black curly hair, wiry but muscular, a sly, insinuating look around the eyes. But very polite. Excuse me miss, do you mind, oh no go right ahead, that kind of thing. After a couple of weeks we start talking, for some reason, about our families. Turns out he’s from Colombia, been here 10 years. Has a mother, sister and aunt in New York but everyone else is back home. And I talk about my family and we talk about how we celebrate Easter and Christmas there versus here, and does he ever get homesick. And after about a week of this he asks if he can get me a Coke from the machine, and I say sure, make it a diet, and I follow him to the soda machine and the next thing I know we have our lips on each other and we’re falling to the floor.

And I’m unbuttoning my green silk blouse. He places his hands on the skin on either side of my rib cage. Then I shiver and throw my head back, then snap it forward and practically bark at him, do it now, do it now, go! Then I shout no, use a condom, and he pulls one out of his pocket, the one with his name on it.

What can I say? I’m a co-manager of one of the largest funds in the company, a four-star Morningstar rating three years running, and I’m rolling around on the teal wall-to-wall with a guy whose tools of the trade are a mop, a bucket and a squeegee. I mean, was I insane or what?

Well, to make a long story short this carries on for a few more weeks. The usual place we go is the smokers’ lounge; there was a couch in there that was almost long enough to be comfortable. One foot on the floor the whole time. It was dangerous, but we – at least I – was getting off on the risk.

Meanwhile, during the days I was pitching some new plays to Gordon. We dumped half the Costco and bought AOL, and I don’t have to tell you how that paid out in the end. And we went large in telcos; Nokia, Ericsson. We were shifting, moving and grooving. I was pumping on all cylinders. Figuring out how much larger my year-end bonus would be than I’d planned three months before, and making lists in my head of things I wanted to get. Glowing. For a while.

Then I decided that the thing with Rodrigo was really too much and I had to end it. Next week.

One Friday night around 10, somebody caught us. He ducked his head in, I heard a sharp intake of breath, and the door slammed. I didn’t get a good look but I’m 90 percent sure it was that slimebag Lesh. He was one of the few smokers in the company who worked that late. You can probably figure out I didn’t have a great weekend.

So the following Monday at 9:15 I’m summoned into Hall’s big upholstered office with the duck decoys on the bookshelves. Hall was sitting behind his desk and didn’t get up when I entered. Gordon was there too, sitting at attention on the sofa. Gordon didn’t say anything, or even look at me. Hall says, take a seat, Stacey. It’s not that we haven’t been happy with your work, or with your obvious dedication. But we have it from a reliable source that you’ve been, blah blah, company policy, reckless, you know how people talk and it’s a small world and what would the shareholders think should this become public knowledge. Don’t have to remind you, Bear Fergrebers is a respectable firm, proud history, hundreds of millions in our trust, we simply can’t have this, or any associated blah blah blah. And on one level, you know, I totally agree with him. Then he says, I’m afraid that in light of this our further association is untenable, and I start to say something and he holds his open palm out in front of him, and continues; nobody is more sorry that I am, the decision’s been made, and of course we have a severance package we think you’ll be happy with, blah blah non-disclosure agreement blah blah.

At this point I’ve stopped listening, I’m just staring at some horrible painting on the wall thinking, I started here when I was 17, and for a janitor? (Of course, nothing happened to him. As far as I know he’s still happily mopping floors and seducing lonely secretaries in bars.)

Hall finished talking. For 20 seconds, I must have just sat there. Finally I stood up, put my hands on his desk, leaned across and said: Stan, you and Gordon have just done to me what the guy with the mop and bucket’s been doing for two weeks – only he has twice your style and four times your manhood. Combined. And I spun on my heels and got the hell out of there.

But it isn’t exactly a sad story. It took me exactly three weeks to line up something better, and I’m doing very nicely at it. Oh, Lesh and his hairpiece got my old job at Falcon Vulture. But by then, I really didn’t care. These days I’m working shorter hours, and steering well clear of the custodial staff.

And Seth and me? Don’t ask.

One response to “Cleaning Up (short story)

  1. Pingback: Cleaning Up, or: Past Performance is No Guarantee | Pogoer 2.0: Memoirs of an experienced optimist

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