★ ★ ★ ★
Money for Nothing
As I stood in line to reload my Metro card at the station, a man in front of me turned around and stared. It took me several seconds to recognize my old lover. It wasn’t as though he’d aged. He was as gorgeous as ever, a silver-haired Richard Gere look-alike with an irresistible smile. Eyes so dark they resembled bottomless black wells. No, what threw me off was his attire. He wore the most exquisite charcoal grey suit, so sharply tailored he could have been a model for GQ. In the three years we were together, I’d never seen him wear anything other than ripped jeans and faded tee shirts.
“Hello, Ann,” he said, and there was no mistaking his voice, deep and smooth as butter.
I hugged Howard, maneuvering around a huge suitcase at his feet. When he hugged me back extra-long, pulling me close, I could smell the fresh scent of the Aqua Blue Zest soap he always used—five bars for a dollar at the Dollar Store—and a familiar long dormant yearning came alive. Images from morning showers at his apartment flashed through my mind. I closed my eyes, recalling how good he had felt when we were skin to skin. His clothes might be new, but his body was the same.
“Howard. God, you smell good.”
I couldn’t help but think about the first time I met Howard. After smoking a joint in his car, I’d gone home with him that very night, out of character for both of us. But he’d bowled me over with his looks, his charm, his intellect. I remember telling him he looked like a Greek god. But with this recent sartorial transformation, he truly left mere mortals behind in the dust.
Then I thought of my boyfriend Larry, and I pulled away. Larry was dependable, made a good living as an engineer, and wanted to marry me. But I’d vacillated. I just wasn’t that into Larry. I hated to admit it, but he was boring.
It must have been about a decade ago that Howard and I dated. I don’t even remember why we broke up, though it might have had something to do with his habit of never waking up before 2 p.m. We stayed in touch a short while, emailing each other now and then, but I hadn’t heard from him in at least eight years. The last time we’d talked, he had just lost his part-time job at UCLA extension, where he’d been teaching a class in comparative literature for a few years. He said the purported reason for his firing—that enrollment was down—was just a ruse, and the real reason was that the administration thought he was a bad influence on the students because of his extreme socialist political views. I remember thinking at the time that maybe they just didn’t like him showing up to teach class stoned.
“It’s been way too long, hasn’t it?” I said. “Why are you so dressed up?”
“I’ve got a new job,” he said. “I’m working at Ornstein & Cooper.”
“Ornstein & Cooper?” I repeated, trying and failing to make the connection between Howard and the oldest and most prestigious law firm in the city. Howard wasn’t a lawyer.
He’d spent the last thirty years working on his novel, practically full time. Besides the extension class he taught, he did computer consulting work a few days a month and earned enough to cover his bills. I’d read parts of the novel when we were together. I found it practically unintelligible. Something about yellow-crested cockatoos and their handlers, researchers who trained the birds to spread toxic political beliefs through language.
It’s not that he didn’t work at his craft. In fact, he was one of the most industrious writers I’d ever met, keeping to a strict regimen of writing all through the night. His idol was James Joyce, and I think he was trying to write the next Ulysses. But he only wrote when stoned, and he prided himself on the opacity of his writing. The book was like an onion, he said, and a reader would have to peel away the layers to get to the genius within. In his view, the American capitalist society was heading for a fall, much like the Roman Empire. He was confident that his novel would be instrumental in ushering in the revolution. I’d set my sights much lower. After decades of defending corporations sued for toxic torts, I retired from the law and now made a decent income churning out romance novels under a pseudonym. And I was okay with that. It wasn’t glamorous, intellectual, or idealistic, but at least it didn’t harm anyone.
“How in the world did you become a lawyer?” I said.
“I went to law school at night,” he said. “And they made me a partner after only two years, pretty much unheard of. Come with me when we get downtown, and I’ll show you what I’m working on.”
I had no particular plans that day—I was just riding the train because I needed to get out of the house and take a break from my desk and the tedious plot-line of my latest book.
“Okay, sure,” I said. “I guess I’ve got a little bit of time before my next meeting.”
The train arrived, and the doors slid open. The platform was too crowded for Howard to wheel his luggage through, and he had to lift it up by the top handle to drag it over the threshold into the metro car. I grabbed a side handle and together, we carried the unwieldy bag through the door and to the back of the car. I was about to sit down when the train lurched forward. The heel of my shoe slipped, and I tumbled to the floor, arms spread out in front of me to break the fall. Howard helped me up and pulled me into the chair next to him. I rubbed my elbow.
“You okay?” Howard said.
He put his arm around my shoulders and brushed the hair away from my eyes.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I said, and leaned into his body just for a moment, savoring his warmth before adjusting my position and sitting back against the cold plastic chair.
“So, why are you lugging this heavy thing around—are you going on a trip?” I asked.
“A trip? No. I take this with me everywhere.”
He opened the case and lay it flat to show me its interior—it folded in half to reveal two equal sections. One side looked like a portable closet with a hanging rod for his clothes. The other part served as a makeshift file cabinet with bookshelves. It held half a dozen files and four heavy law books as well as a large metal box. As Howard pulled the two sides of the case together to shut it, the box tipped open, revealing stacks of fifty-dollar bills and several zip-lock bags filled with weed. His face reddened, and he shoved the money and pot back into the box and closed it.
“What’s with all the cash? I said. “You’re not selling weed, are you?”
“Of course not,” he said. “That’s my personal stash. You never know when the Big One will happen, and I want to be prepared.”
He said he’d found the case at a thrift shop down in Koreatown. Well, at least that part made sense. He’d always bought his clothes at Goodwill, so I was glad to see he could still be a smart shopper despite his changed socio-economic status. But the pinstriped suit? It looked hand-tailored from a place like Brooks Brothers or Bloomingdales, though I couldn’t picture him at either.
When we got downtown, he led me to the entrance of a sleek skyscraper. Gilded letters displayed Ornstein & Cooper’s name above the marble doorway. Howard greeted the security guard and signed me in. We rode up to the penthouse level. The law firm’s lobby opened to a conference room with a panoramic view of the city below and the mountains in the distance. I followed Howard to a corner office with an equally stunning vista, and he pulled out a black leather guest chair for me. He took his seat in the high-backed executive chair behind the desk.
I wanted to know exactly how my now sixty-five-year-old former boyfriend, a man who had been stoned practically every waking hour for the past forty-five years and who considered himself a socialist, had transformed into this Big Law attorney. But before I could ask him, Howard had a file open and turned on the speakerphone.
He loosened his tie and punched in a phone number. He stood up and put his finger to his lips, then rubbed his hands together and smiled.
After three rings, a man answered.
“Raymond Littman?” Howard said.
“Yeah, who’s this?”
“This is Howard Strauss over at Ornstein & Cooper. Mr. Littman, I’m calling you about a personal matter.”
“How did you get my number?”
“That’s not important, Raymond. Let me cut to the chase. You know that little shell corporation you formed, over in the Cayman Islands? What’s it called again, Rayco? The one that you don’t want the IRS to know about?”
There was a pause on the other end of the line. Howard walked over and stood behind me. He massaged my neck and shoulders, releasing tension from knots I didn’t know I had. My skin tingled and I didn’t want him to stop.
Finally, Littman replied, his voice sputtering.
“Who are you? I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m just a chemist.”
Howard returned to his desk, took off his suit jacket, and flung it over the back of his chair. Then he gave me a wink and cleared his throat. He spoke softly but firmly, his rich voice exuding confidence.
“Oh Raymond, cut the crap. I’m a partner at Ornstein Cooper, and I’ve got signed affidavits from five witnesses who’ll testify that you’ve been siphoning off pharmaceuticals from your job and selling them on the dark web, and you’ve been laundering the money through Rayco for years. So, here’s what’s going to happen. I’m coming over to your office tomorrow at 3 p.m. You pay me fifty thousand and the IRS never has to know about this.”
“No shit, Sherlock. But do you really want to take a chance I won’t go to the Feds?”
“But how can I come up with fifty grand by tomorrow? You gotta give me more time. I mean, please, Mr. Strauss, cut me some slack.”
“Sorry, Raymond. No can do. Oh, and by the way, pay me in cash. No Bitcoin. Ciao.” Howard pressed a button on the phone to end the call.
Though the entire conversation lasted only a few minutes, Howard’s skilled performance simultaneously shocked and fascinated me. It was kind of like watching Breaking Bad.
“What was that about?” I said. “You’re shaking that guy down? I thought you were a hotshot lawyer, not a blackmailer. I mean, if the guy is laundering money, you should report it to the Justice Department, not use it as a weapon to extort him.”
“Ann, Ann, when are you going to learn? It’s a dog eat dog world. He’ll give me the money and $10,000 of that is mine to keep. Call it an incentive bonus from the law firm. Not bad for a five-minute phone call, huh?”
He sat back in the chair with a look of satisfaction and smiled.
He could melt me with that look, but I mustered outrage.
“Yeah, peachy keen,” I said. “What the fuck happened to you? Do you still have a photo of Castro in your bathroom? And Che Guevara? I don’t think they’d approve of the new Howard. You sold out.”
Howard shrugged and pulled a copy of the Daily Journal, the L.A. legal community’s newspaper, from a pile on his desk and slid it over to me.
“Take a look,” he said.
There on the front page was a photo of Howard in a courtroom, with the caption, “Ornstein & Cooper’s new secret weapon.”
I skimmed the article. It told the story of Howard’s admission to the night school program of Loyola Law School at age sixty. He graduated first in his class and editor in chief of the law review. The top firms in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco sought to recruit him.
“I had fifteen offers,” he said. “But I chose Ornstein & Cooper since they’re the biggest baddest sons of bitches.”
“Yeah, that’s impressive,” I said. “But why? What made you go over to the dark side?”
Reaching into a pocket in his suit jacket, Howard brought out a disposable vape pen. He inhaled deeply and offered me a hit. He smiled and leaned back with his hands clasped behind his head.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he said. “One day I was walking on the beach trying to figure out how to pay Megan’s support and still have money left over for the rent, and it came to me. Why not beat the scumbags at their own game? See, I figured out that the way to subvert the system is from the inside, not the outside.”
“Oh right. Come on, Howard. How does your profiting from a corrupt system subvert anything?”
“The way I see it, I’m like Robin Hood.”
“Robin Hood stole from the rich to give the poor. You’re stealing from the rich to pay yourself.”
“Well, I used to be poor. Think about it.”
He had a point. Who was I to pass judgment?
And then he smiled, in that way he had that made me stop thinking with my brain, and I knew that it didn’t matter if he was fighting for the revolution or working for the man. I was still going to sleep with him. I took his hand. The three of us—Howard, me, and the rolling suitcase—made our way back to the metro station and the long ride home.
Judy Gitterman is a fiction writer living in Santa Monica, California. She recently received her MFA in creative writing from Antioch University Los Angeles, where she was co-lead fiction editor and on the interview team of Lunch Ticket. Her work has appeared in Hedge Apple and borrowed solace. Judy is currently working on a collection of interwoven short stories.
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