READ AN EXCERPT FROM "STEALING THE FIRE"
JONAH DIDN’T NEED an alarm to wake him at five-thirty, the buzz of anxiety in his stomach took care of that. He had no monster commute today, his flight to New York wasn’t leaving until 11:30, but he couldn’t sleep. What he wanted most now was time—late mornings in bed, Peet’s coffee, sunshine on someone’s hair. It was time to cash out. He was thirty. Every morning for the last six months he had wondered, Where did the last eight years go? Quarter by quarter, the valley had burned him out. Now it was just a matter of time until the big payoff.
He smelled coffee and padded to the kitchen, where his automatic machine had a double espresso all ready for him, punched in the night before for five thirty-five on the nose. The machine ground the beans, filled the little basket with the fine powder, forced boiling water at high pressure through the coffee until it steamed right into the little cup with his name on it, ready to drink just the way he liked it, extra strong. He headed into his office. The early June fog still hugged the streets outside. The headlights of a few early morning commuters sent out fuzzy arcs of brightness as they turned the corner onto Franklin Street. Poor suckers. He was glad he wasn’t headed down 280 and back today. Instead of four hours in a car he’d spend five hours in a plane.
The computer fired up with a satisfying round of music and rolling digits, the final ping of the e-mail alert. He went to the web first to check the Hong Kong markets. Then he zipped into his portfolio. The Wall Street Journal said eMind stock was down ten points to 30 on rumors of a takeover. Time to snap up some more at a bargain rate. He went to redherring.com to see if there was any action on the eMind merger with 3f. It had been in the works for six weeks now. Nothing yet. Maybe that was good news. Once the deal went through, the stock could double.
He checked his e-mail. Several dozen urgent messages from the office, including one about the Funkyfish deadline. Something from his mother. Was it someone’s birthday? Were his parents traveling again? They had just come back from St. Petersburg, where his father had attended a scientific conference. They had stayed with some down-at-the-heels former Soviet scientist to save on the hotel room even though the university was paying for it.
Jonah clicked open his mother’s e-mail. Nothing new. Something about picking apricots. His parents had an old farm on the ridgeline a few miles up from Sand Hill Road, seven acres of apricot orchards and a stucco house with a red tile roof that needed work. They had bought it for a song in the early seventies, when his father, then a whiz-kid Ph.D. in physics at twenty-six, got the tenure-track job at Stanford. They talked fondly of the days when the valley was country.
His mother was inexplicably attached to the orchard. She always made a ritual of canning apricots each summer, pitting and peeling and boiling lots of cut-up fruit in big kettles on the stove, pouring the sticky mess into little jars, waxing the tops, putting on lids and handwritten labels. All she had to do was drive over to Draeger’s and pick up anything apricot she wanted, from chutney to sorbet. But even though designer houses were nudging up to their fence, his folks were still in their time warp. Jonah nagged them to sell out and get something nice. They said they loved the space, they could never afford to buy so many acres, they didn’t care if there was no central heating and the plumbing was old.
The phone next to his computer rang.
“This is Jonah.” He checked the clock. Six a.m.
“Jonah? It’s your dad.”
“Right.” He was being mighty formal. He usually called himself Toddy. Someone must be there with him.
“I’m in London, about to go to dinner. I hope I didn’t wake you, I know you’re an early riser, the commute and all.”
“Well, I know your mother won’t be up yet, and I don’t want to wake her. Would you give her a call later and let her know I’ll be home tonight around six?”
“Fine. Listen, I wanted to tell you about a deal I saw for you two.”
“I’m on my way to dinner. Can it wait until I get home? How’s the weather?”
“Damn! We’ve got that leak in the roof, she’ll be beside herself.”
“That’s why I keep telling you to sell that place. It’s falling apart, and it will just get worse. Listen, I found this horse farm near Woodside with several acres, they’re asking a million four. But you’ve got to act fast.”
“We can’t afford Woodside.”
“I’ve told you, if you subdivide you can make millions on the land alone.”
“Pie in the sky. And what about our house? It’s in no shape to sell.”
“It’s a disaster. A teardown. They’ll build what they want anyway.”
“Thanks but no thanks.”
“Toddy. You don’t get it.” Jonah could never get through to him. “I know a guy who bought a house in Marin for $20 million cash, and it wasn’t even for sale. He just wanted it and knocked on the door. You can get close to that for the land alone. Some venture capitalist could walk to the office from where you are.”
No answer. The fucking pride of the man. He’d give him one more chance. “I could lend you the up-front money until you sell your place.”
“I said no thanks. We’ve got what we want.” His voice was steely. Jonah could imagine his jaw working.
“No regrets, huh Dad?” He didn’t bother to keep the sarcasm from his voice. The connection ended. Bastard hung up on him. They couldn’t care less. Toddy was a big pooh-bah in physics, but when it came to money, he was in the ether along with Tim Berners-Lee, the English dude who invented the World Wide Web but never saw the money in it. Toddy got exercised about access to the web, keeping it free. When it came to personal profit, making millions off what he knew, what he owned, he was clueless. And whenever Jonah talked to his mother about selling the house she brought up Chekhov, that Russian shit she loved so much. They could just stay put and act like the rest of the valley wasn’t there. His friends had parents who set them up with their first good jobs, covered the down payment on a first house. He had to make his own way.
Silicon Valley was mostly orchards and the Internet was just a gleam in some bureaucrat’s eye when Jonah was born. But he was in on the gold rush now. The valley had its own kind of biodiversity—semiconductors, software, biotech, the Internet. Semiconductors could be in the toilet, Internet companies on a roll. You just had to time it right.
Speaking of which. He had a few minutes to do a little work on the Funkyfish project. One of eMind’s clients had a cool design with inch-high flashing fishes going across the screen, and he was trying to figure out how to put a blinking ad on the fish so it would seduce the masses into clicking onto his client’s website and sticking there.
This was his second year with his third start-up. Reg, eMind’s CEO, had talked him into walking away from the second just a few months before they went public, missing out on several hundred thousand dollars. Reg was a scrawny Georgia farm boy who went to Stanford on a scholarship in engineering and ended up at Hewlett-Packard. He retired at forty with a pile of cash and set up his own start-up, selling multimillion-dollar switches and routers to corporations for their intranets and hubs and networks. He went public the second year, and bought up all the little puppies until he was the biggest dog in the valley. Reg was sharp. He sat Jonah down over breakfast at Buck’s in Woodside and ran the numbers through a spread sheet on his notebook computer, eMind versus the other company, and proved to Jonah it was worth it, even if his salary was shredded back to $80,000, because he’d be a VP and he’d end up with several million in stock options.
Jonah didn’t think twice. Reg had a knack for impressing the Wall Street analysts and a reputation for winning big and rewarding his inner circle well. Now he wanted to nudge his hundreds of corporate clients onto the superhighway, teaching them to depend on the Internet for company-wide communication, for research, marketing, advertising, promotion, anything. He wanted to hit that jangling flashing jackpot again. Jonah decided to come along for the ride. eMind went public eighteen months in, and on paper Jonah was worth $3.5 million. He had to stay with the company two years to exercise his options. Only two months to go now. And there was more to come. He expected a bonus of five thousand shares when his promotion came through at the end of the quarter. After the merger, his options could double. And he had five thousand more shares coming when he hit his two-year anniversary. Then he could cash out and take his year off. This was the big score he’d been waiting for all these years. It made up for all the eighty-hour weeks, all the days without sunshine.
The anxiety was back once Jonah hit the airport a few hours later. The place was a construction mess. The shuttle buses from long-term parking were long and ugly, with surly drivers who didn’t touch luggage. Next week when he flew to London to do the dog-and-pony show for the European clients he’d take the company limo to the airport instead of his Land Cruiser.
Calm down. He pulled a plastic pillbox and a bottle of water from the top of his briefcase, shook two capsules into his hand and swallowed with a swig of water. Good old kava. Some South Pacific tribe used it to get shitfaced. He used it to keep the little buzzes out of his stomach.
He wasn’t scared. Scared was kid stuff. Anxious is what the big guys got. Even the mafia guys on The Sopranos got it. They didn’t turn tail and run, they just took something for it and did whatever they had to do anyway. Which reminded him. Time to fuck with Pete.
Pete was the other VP Reg had hired a few weeks back. Reg said the business was growing so fast he needed someone to take some of the load off Jonah. The first day Pete was in the office, Jonah invited him to lunch. Pete said no, he’d brought his own lunch. Macrobiotic shit. He spent his lunch hour reading. He had a stack of poetry books in his cube. Jonah noticed Rimbaud, one of his mother’s favorites. Illuminations. Une Saison en Enfer. They were in the original French. Pete wore Armani suits with ties and tortoise-shell glasses to make him look like he had a brain. Something not right about that.
Jonah was wearing an indigo blue polo shirt and chinos for his trip to New York today to meet the CEO of 3f, the French firm that was Reg’s choice for the merger. This was as dressed up as it got in the valley. If 3f was going to do business with eMind, they needed to know that.
Jonah pulled out his cell phone and hit speed dial to the office. “I need a plane next Monday for an overseas flight,” he said, as he scanned the signs outside the bus. He was going to New York on United, was it? “The company plane.” Duh. Sally, his new assistant, was such a dimwit. Being blonde and willowy wasn’t enough. He’d have to do something about her when he got back from New York on Thursday. “I don’t want to go into Heathrow,” he added. “Find an airport somewhere around there that will take a jet. Pete is going into London for a Tuesday presentation. Get him onto the Concorde.”
That ought to fix weasel boy. Accounting always frowned on the Concorde, might even veto his tickets. Why didn’t Pete use the company plane? they would ask. Because I had it tied up—anywhere but Heathrow. What Jonah really wanted to know was why Reg had hired Pete. The only way to handle him was quick and dirty.
“How’s the merger deal going?” he asked Sally. No news. He rolled his eyes in exasperation. “I’ll check back in once I hit JFK.”
He was meeting Felicia at the gate. Felicia was new. He didn’t know why the 3f guys wanted to see her. She handled the company website, and an e-mail newsletter for 20,000 key clients. She was from the East, maybe Boston. An arty sort, thin, with long dark hair that tended to frizz on foggy days. Maybe he’d figure her out on the trip. Side by side for five hours, couldn’t hurt. He wondered what she thought of Pete.
“They say yellow is the safest color for bikes,” Felicia announced. They were buckled in, taxied and aloft, and Felicia finally relaxed her clenched fists.
“Why yellow?” he asked, humoring her.
“I guess it’s easier to see. But white is the safest color for cars.”
“White. My Land Cruiser is green.”
“You don’t drive one of those monsters!” Felicia’s face grew pink with outrage. “Don’t you know sport utility vehicles kill? Or don’t you care?”
“Whatever.” Maybe he wasn’t going to figure out the mystery of Felicia. Maybe he could get some sleep. He pulled an eyemask and a bottle of melatonin from the side pocket of his computer case and waved for the attendant to bring him a new bottle of water.
“You’re not going to take that!” Her face was aghast again.
“And why not?” He raised one eyebrow sarcastically.
“It’s made from ground up cow’s brains. You could get mad cow’s disease.”
“It’s my brain.” He snapped down his eyemask.
Dinner was being served when he woke up.
“So what’s the hardest part of your job?” he asked Felicia.
“Keeping up on what’s hot. You’ve got to know hundreds of sites, which ones are any good. You have to answer all the questions.”
“How many hits do you get a day?”
“Fifteen, twenty thousand.”
“Is that good?”
“What makes your website work?”
“It’s easy to use. I think Reg is pleased.”
She paused, gave him a significant look. She had a flicker of doubt? Reg was extremely easy to read. If he wasn’t pleased, he went ballistic. The attendant brought her a tray with lots of colors.
“The vegetarian special.” She unfolded her napkin carefully, set the tiny salt and pepper shakers to the right side of her tray.
He waited for her to ask, “And what’s the hardest part of your job, Jonah?” He was the senior person here. And what would he say? Keeping all the billion-dollar clients happy by creating flashing Funkyfish to put their ads on, and interoffice memo forms in three languages. Making investors believe there was a there there, when profits were a good two decades in the future. He was good at it. Because of him, the client base had grown ten times in the last year.
“You know Pete at the office?” she asked. “I don’t like him.”
“Why not?” he asked, trolling for allies.
“I had a long talk with him one day. The next day I was going for cappuccino and I ran into him and he didn’t say a word. Same thing the next day. So finally I said, ‘Are you avoiding me?’He didn’t remember who I was. I’ve talked to him three or four times, he never remembers me.”
So she was hot for weasel boy.
“He didn’t know who I was for the first month, and I work in the office next to his,” Jonah said. “He took over my clients when they put me in charge of Europe, but he acts like I don’t know anything he needs to know.”
“I think he’s a womanizer type.”
“He tries to come across that way, but he’s not successful.” Never pass up a chance to trash the competition.
“Really.” What else? Herpes? Nah.
“I hear he’s on the early track for Viagra.”
“No.” She seemed genuinely shocked.
“It happens. Eighty-hour weeks.”
She was quiet for awhile, chewing her vegetarian cud.
He sliced into the chicken thigh on his plastic plate. It was covered with something red that smelled like fake smoke. He leaned forward over the tray table to keep it off his chinos.
“I’ve got an extra napkin,” Felicia said, holding it out.
“I’m going to freeze my eggs,” she announced.
“Is that some sort of vegetarian thing?”
“Eggs. You know.” She raised her eyebrows. They were plucked in a fine line. “So they’ll be fresh when I decide to have children. How about you?”
“Me?” What was she talking about?
“You know, your sperm.”
“Freeze.” Like diving into icewater. An involuntary shudder ran up his spine.
“You should think about it.”
“It’s a little early for that.”
“How old are you anyway?”
“Thirty is probably the peak.” She smiled. “After thirty, you really should freeze it. You never know. By thirty-five real deterioration sets in.”
“Let’s talk about something else.” Couldn’t she see he was squirming?
“A headhunter called,” she said. “A Boston job opening. She wanted me to FAX her a resume.”
“And?” Jonah encouraged. She’d only been with the company three months. She didn’t even know him.
“She told me I should get up there and interview right now, later this week after we wrap up. She said there were already two qualified candidates, she couldn’t guarantee it would still be there. But I’m exhausted. I was in New York two weeks ago on my last trip, we ran and ran and ran, and now this one.”
“What sort of job?”
“CFO for a start-up.”
“Are you okay?"
“Piece of chicken went down the wrong way.” Felicia, the web manager, a CFO? She must be connected.
“Boston is very intellectual,” she continued. “I went to school there. No makeup, women wear jeans and sweatshirts.”
“Two, actually. Wellesley. Then Harvard for my MBA.”
Holy shit. She looked about twelve. Why was she in such a lowly spot? What was the point, about makeup?
“Didn’t you work in New York?” he asked.
“Right. New York is like a movie, visually stimulating, everyone is all dressed up. But I got sick of it. I finally got a good apartment in a great building but the day I tried to move in the place was surrounded with barricades and secret service, the president was going to be coming by for a fundraiser. The guy in the penthouse had something to do with selling satellite components to China. Every time I entered the building I had to go through a metal detector.”
“But the job in Boston?”
“I could do without it.”
“So you like it on the West Coast.”
“It’s okay. I’m too tired to bother right now.”
“Where do you live?” he asked.
Turned out she’d bought one of those cheesy live/work places on Potrero Hill. He owned a Victorian just off Union Street. He settled back, relaxed, as they bumped gently back to earth, enjoying the instinctive flexing of his body as the force of gravity caught up with them and they taxied into the gate.
The next morning Jonah was staring at someone’s long dark hair on the pillow next to him. Who the hell is that? Then he remembered.Felicia. He’d offered her a lift to the hotel in the company limo. They were staying at the Plaza. He’d suggested an after-dinner drink. He had heard about this place that had twenty kinds of martinis. They’d just dropped in for a minute. The vegetarian chose chocolate. Who knew? She had two and reached for his belt right in the corner of the bar. He must have gotten her out of there fast. He had another shard of memory: her swirl of dark hair wrapped around his dick.
He didn’t remember the rest. Too much time on the road? Jet lag? A bad mix of kava, melatonin and gin? All of the above? Now what would he do with her? She seemed to be deeply unconscious. Time to check the markets on his laptop. He threw on a terrycloth robe and went to the other room in the suite. There might even be time for a little trading before she woke up and he had to make conversation to get her out of there and back into her own room (she did have a room, didn’t she?) before their nine o’clock meeting.
Jonah smiled; eMind stock was back up to $40. There was a knock on the door. He looked through the peephole. Room service. Good show. He must have placed an order on one of those menu cards they put on the pillow. Before or after? Whatever. The Filipino waiter rolled in a table shrouded in white and began whipping skillet-sized metal tops off the plates and fussing around with the coffee cups. Ah, time for the tip.
He went into the bedroom for some cash. The bed was empty. He could hear the shower running. Hey, this was his room, wasn’t it? She could shower in her own. He dropped a couple of bucks on the waiter and showed him out, then knocked on the door. “Breakfast is served.” He kept his voice pleasant.
She poked her head through the door wearing only a towel. She had the bathroom all steamed up. He hated that.
“I’ll just have coffee, black,” she said. “I’ll drink it in here. Mind if I use your toothbrush?” She shut the door.
Now what? “So you’ll have to go to your room and change,” he said firmly when he brought the coffee.
“No need. I’ll just dry my hair and do my makeup and we can go.”
“I’ll need to shower, too.”
“You look fine.”
“Sure. How-de-do Mr. Collins in my Plaza Hotel robe.”
He sat down to eat. Eggs and potatoes and melon and juice. He brought his coffee back to the desk and picked up the phone to check his voicemail.
“He’s smart,” he heard Felicia say to someone. “All these guys at eMind got 800s on their SATS and went to Stanford in engineering. He’s got more on the ball than some of them. But he’s jittery. I lay there last night watching his eyelashes twitch. Plus he’s too thin, too freckled. Not my type.”
“Not for you, sweetie,” he heard the female voice on the other end say. “It’s better not to get involved with any of them, it will only lead to trouble.”
“Sometimes trouble is fun.”
Jonah coughed. “I didn’t know you were on the line,” he said.
“I’ll be just a minute,” Felicia said, unfazed.
“Make it snappy,” he said harshly.
The meeting at 3f headquarters was on the forty-fifth floor of a cantilevered building on 57th Street off Fifth. The floor-to-ceiling windows overlooked Central Park. No cubicles for these guys. He and Felicia sat on one side of the conference table, three guys in Armani suits on the other. She was in the black cotton pants suit she’d worn on the plane, he in his chinos and polo shirt. The air conditioning raised goose bumps on his bare arms.
Collins had pale skin, dark eyes with puffy grey circles underneath. As CEO of a Paris-based company, he spent most of his time in the air. He offered Diet Cokes. Jonah said sure. Always go with what the head guy wants. Felicia asked for water. Collins ignored her.
“Too many chickens in the coop,” Collins said. Funny, he didn’t look rural. “We’re going to have to make some hard choices.”
Uh-oh, cutbacks. Jonah nodded. But he was telling them, so they must be okay. What did he want?
“I called you two in to cover some of the grey areas. Jonah, you were in on the ground floor at eMind, you know the soft spots, the expansion moves that didn’t work. Felicia, you’re in touch with all the current clients. Between the two of you, you’re history.”
Jonah winced. Collins glanced at him and laughed. “Don’t take that the wrong way.”
Sure. You’re history. Not my type. Two unexpected strikes in a matter of hours. Time to reassess the gameboard.
Felicia was invited to step outside. Jonah started his boilerplate Internet speech. “The network is a network of networks, like a superhighway with off-ramps and side roads. It has twenty-nine commercial backbones interconnected at eleven official spots, and hundreds of unofficial . . .”
“We know,” Collins interrupted. “We want to go over the numbers.”
So Jonah and the three bean counters spent an hour going quarter by quarter through the brief history of eMind. They all kept a neutral tone. Just the facts.
Then Collins dismissed his sidekicks and asked the billion-dollar questions.
How did Jonah read the future of e-commerce? Of 250 milllion consumers, how many would buy on the net? “We’re going for total saturation,” Jonah said. “I just bought a Toyota Land Cruiser on-line, with extras—leather trim, power moonroof. This is only the beginning.”
“How can you tell what’s coming next?” Collins leaned forward. This was what was really on his mind, and he didn’t want anyone else at 3f to hear the answer.
“Follow the military,” Jonah said. “They don’t worry about what things cost. If the military is trending toward band width expansion, or multi-user games in different locations, we’ll all be going there in three or four years.”
Collins sent Jonah on his way and called in Felicia.
Yes! Jonah felt like he’d aced an exam. He decided to take a walk before going back to the hotel. It was a hot day, nearly ninety, and humid compared to the West Coast, a definite novelty. A summer day in San Francisco was by definition cold and foggy. He strolled down Fifth Avenue, eyes glued to the store windows. He drifted into the Tiffany store and picked up a pair of canary diamond stud earrings for Felicia.
“Put it on my debit card,” he told the salesman.
“You heard me.” He waved the card in front of his nose.
“That’s an eighteen hundred dollar charge, we accept American Express, Sir, but not a debit card from an out-of-state bank.” Cursing under his breath, Jonah pulled out his cell phone and hit speed dial for his banker.
“Charlie, tell this gentleman I’m good for eighteen hundred dollars.” He handed his cell phone over the counter.
The clerk nodded, wrote down a series of numbers, handed the phone back.
“And did you wish that to be gift-wrapped, sir?”
Felicia knocked on his door around six. “Do you have dinner plans?” she asked. “Let’s try Babbo. Edward made us a reservation.”
“Collins. You know.”
“Why not?” He was the one with the expense account, she knew how to pull the strings with Edward. Did she blow him, too?
“Give me half an hour to get presentable,” she said.
“Wait. I have something for you.”
“Mmmmm?” She stepped inside, close to him. He could smell the hotel shampoo, a slight tinge of sweat. She brushed her fingertips up the inner seam of his chinos and made a fist just below his balls.
“Whoa, wait.” He went to the desk and pulled out the gift box.
“A present!” she called it out, excited as a kid at a birthday party. She sat on the couch in the suite and pulled off the gift wrapping, the ribbon, opened the special blue box.
“Ohhhh.” At last he had her off guard.
She held the earrings to her ears. They brought out a yellow tone in her dark eyes, a fleck of some sort he hadn’t noticed before. Was it wolves that had eyes like that?
“Jonah,” she whispered. It was the first time she had used his name.
A few weeks later Reg threw a big bash for the eMind team. He rented the Exploratorium for the night, with a catered dinner, open bar, three bands, hot and cold hors d’oeuvres, large-screen videos all over of sharks and jellyfish and crashing surf. It cost almost half a million. A reward for all their hard hard hard work, Reg said in his speech.
Reg was a master at smoke and mirrors. But this summer he faced the worst of all conjunctions: At the end of the fiscal year July 1, with special scrutiny of the books now that they were public, it was painfully clear the sales staff hadn’t made anywhere near their numbers. The analysts got wind of it, the NASDAQ got dicey for Internet companies and eMind stock went down to 8. A month after the bash, instead of eMind merging with 3f, Reg sold eMind to 3f outright. Edward Collins gave Reg an early retirement package of $30 million to sweeten the deal, and voilà, the French had a major position in the valley. The takeover news took eMind stock down to $4 a share.
For the first time in his life as he knew it, Jonah considered the possibility of prayer.
The Monday after that news hit, Pete knocked on Jonah’s door and asked to see him. Jonah grabbed his latte and headed next door.
“So, Reg sold us out,” he said, standing in the doorway.
“Sit down,” Pete said. “It’s payback time.”
Jonah raised his eyebrows, sat down in the visitor’s chair to the right of Pete’s desk. Each cube had one. Pete had two.
“Jonah, I’ve been waiting a long time to tell you, you’re outta here.”
The buzz sparked in Jonah’s stomach.
“Fat chance,” Jonah said. “I went over everything with Collins; 3f needs me.”
“Edward said to tell you, ‘You’re history.’ His specific words. I can take it from here.”
“Sorry about the timing,” Pete added,
snickering. “Pity the stock tanked after our takeover.” When he opened up his mouth and showed all his white white teeth Jonah thought of a shark swimmming toward him, thwarted only by glass.
So Pete was a spy from 3f.
“In fact,” Pete continued, turning to gaze at his computer screen, “I think it’s not through with the nosedive.” He hit a few buttons. “Ah, here it is. eMind stock just opened at fifty cents.” Jonah was speechless. His paper worth had vaporized overnight.
Even in his daze he was making quick calculations. Two months ago with the stock at 40 he’d been worth at least $4 million, now it was down to $40,000. Forget the five thousand shares for the promotion, forget the doubled stock options, he could go to court for the extra five thousand shares they owed him at the end of two years, since it was only a matter of weeks. But why bother, at fifty cents a share? Jonah winced. The buzz had repositioned itself as a sharp pain in his gut.
“No exit strategy?” Pete said, with a no-mercy smirk. “What’s up with that? I thought you were the smart one.”
Jonah stood up.
“What about Felicia? Is she out too?”
“Felicia? She was Edward’s protegé, and this was her chance to shine. She scoped it out, she’ll be in charge of the first French division we back.”
The bitch. They were all in this together. No one at eMind saw it coming, not even Reg. Or did he?
In his office he found two security guys with blank faces removing his computer before he could download his files. Back home, he found two more on his doorstep waiting to strip him of his home computer and laptop and cell phone.
He felt like shit.
His net worth was down to zip, it could be months before the stock righted itself and he could negotiate for his options. Meanwhile he had the mortgage, the car payments, the rest. Time to go home to Los Altos and check in with good old Mom.
“Stanley Kubrick had fireworks at his funeral,” Jonah’s mother announced. “That’s what I want.” She was sitting on the patio in the shadow of a gnarly apricot tree serving iced tea and grilled chicken caesar salads to Jonah and her best friend Angela. His mother was slender and pale in her denim dress and sandals, her short dark hair smooth around her face. She looked more fortyish than fiftyish, except for the crinkly shit under her neck. He had hoped to find her alone.
“Cool,” Angela said. She was small and vaguely red-headed, wearing a beige pantsuit. Angela taught twentieth-century American Lit. at Stanford. The two of them had been college roommates at Berkeley. They had been friends longer than he had been alive. He knew they could go on for hours.
“You probably need a permit,” his mother continued. “Unless it’s around the Fourth of July. I wonder what it takes.”
“Fame. Maybe it’s easier in England. We were in Cambridge in the summer and they had fireworks, just to celebrate some anniversary.”
“If not fireworks, something. Sparklers. Hand them out to everyone to light up at the end.”
“I can see it. Better if it’s at night.”
They were laughing now.
“Unbelievable,” Jonah muttered into his Romaine. He couldn’t imagine his mother dead, and here she was laughing about it. The buzz in his stomach worsened. It was constant now. He was off caffeine even, trying to keep it down.
“Oh, don’t mind us,” his mother said, bent over with hilarity. “Is a night funeral more formal?” she choked out. “I don’t want people dressing up on my account.”
“We could light them at the cemetery?” Angela had taken a small notebook from her tote and was taking notes with a yellow pencil. She probably didn’t even know how to use a Palm Pilot.
“I guess so. After I’m planted. I haven’t made that decision, actually. Fireworks is easy. That’s the only definite.”
“Cremation or burial? That is the question,” Angela said.
Jonah pushed the nine-grain croutons to the side of his plate and tried to think about something other than his mother’s funeral. How could she talk this way in front of him? She had expected Angela for lunch, but not him, so he was stuck. He couldn’t leave the table until coffee was served. House rules. And he needed to explain what had happened at eMind. He needed to borrow some money until his stock went back up. He knew they must have something stashed away. They’d paid the house off, they bought their ten-year-old Peuguot outright, they never spent money. She was an easier touch than his father. His father hated talking about money. He thought Jonah had taken the dirty path. It really burned Jonah. They had the wrong house, the wrong car, the wrong everything, all because his dad had never made a dime.
“Both,” his mother said. “Maybe. Actually cremation is cheaper. That could make a difference. But I don’t want to be scattered about.”
“So you need a plot of ground somewhere.”
“Here in Los Altos.”
“Have you bought it?”
“Not yet. I wonder if there are any left. I may have no choice but be scattered. If so, I’d like it to be here in the orchard.” She gestured toward the trees that grew all the way from the house to the road. Jonah had always wished for a front yard instead of all those trees.
“I hope you’re paying attention,” Angela said tartly to Jonah.
“Right. Like I want to think about it.”
“Now, Jonah,” his mother soothed. “You’ll think about these things too . . .”
“When I’m your age. I know.”
On some level he could tell they were being serious. Telling each other something in that way women do. It was something he could never be part of and that pissed him off. Especially now, listening to them talk softly, comfortably, about dying.
“I suppose I’ll outlive Toddy,” his mother said. “I don’t understand why my mother is still alive and my dad is gone. They were the same age, ate the same things, drank the same water. He did diets, exercise, she sat like a lump, couldn’t keep her mouth shut around sweets, and outlived him by ten years so far.”
“Male genes, heredity, all that,” Angela said.
“Hey, watch it!” he said. When would this end?
“Sorry hon. It’s part of the basic unfairness of life etcetera.” There she went again, with her infuriating way of referring to big subjects in trivial terms, tossing them off with a little “and so forth” but not explaining. It was a shorthand he never had learned. He gazed at the tree by the side of the patio. A few shriveled reddish apricots clung to the thorny branches. The trees didn’t even bear fruit like they used to.
“Langston Hughes died of uremia,” Angela said. She was writing a critical reassessment of Hughes. “He went into the hospital under a pseudonym with a prostate infection and something wrong with his heart, and by the time someone recognized him he was dying. Uremia.”
“So he didn’t have to die.”
“But he did.”The two of them nodded and were quiet for awhile.
“He was ready,” Angela added. “He wrote his will out four years before. I just got around to mine yesterday. I did one of those cut-out-of-the-workbook dealies a few years back before taking off for London, just so there would be no confusion, left it on the dining room table. When I got home, I stuck it under a stack of papers.”
“Why is it so important that everything is ‘in order?’ If you’re gone, what’s your worry?” his mother mused.
“What about me?” he asked.
“Oh, for the survivors, yes,” his mother reached over and patted his hand. The buzz was increasing now.
“It focuses anxiety on lists and estate taxes, not death, I suppose,” she added to Angela.
“Any movement on selling the house?” Jonah asked.
She looked at him blankly.
“I talked to Dad about it,” Jonah continued. “You really ought to talk him into selling. I could do it for you.”
“Do what, hon?”
“I could get a realtor’s license and find a buyer. It would be too easy.” And the ten percent fee would carry him through for months.
“Seriously Jonah, I don’t know what’s got into you. We like it where we are.”
“You could make millions, retire, anything you want.”
“We have what we want, hon.”
“I’ll talk to Toddy about this.”
“You won’t get anywhere. You know that.”
She was right. The two of them frustrated him beyond belief. “When are you going to wise up?” he said, not bothering to disguise the edge in his voice.
She fixed him with her cold look, one eyebrow raised. “This is our home. You don’t have to like it.”
“I think it’s just blankness,” Angela said. “Nothing.”
“What?” Jonah was dizzy. His palms were wet. He had a horrifying thought. They would never change.
“You know, death,” Angela said.
“I think it’s something we can’t imagine,” his mother said, sliding back into neutral. “What I hope is it’s like that euphoria you get when you’re having a great dream, and you get to stay in it.”
“Doubtful,” Angela said with a cynical laugh. “So much is fucked up here, how could it be any better afterward?”
“I think words like ‘better’ don’t mean anything after you’re dead,” his mother said. “It’s more like ‘infinity.’”
“We sound like sophomores,” Angela said. They were laughing again. How could they?
“I feel like a sophomore,” his mother said. “Why do I have to change how I feel just because I’m older?”
“A lot older. Try thirty years.”
“Okay, a lot older. There are all these rules. You have to retire at what is it now, seventy? Sixty-eight?”
“Who can afford to retire? I just hope I can keep mobile enough to work until I drop dead.”
“You can’t drop dead—that was a nineteenth-century luxury. It’s not allowed now. They’ll plug you into machines.”
He felt a surge of rage toward his mother. She would never understand what he was going through. She had never worked like he had, twenty-four/seven for years, and then had someone hit delete. She had lived this easy life, with Toddy and the apricot orchards, and some day she might be hooked up to a machine, her body a wreck, her eyes pleading, and he would have to figure out what to do. The buzz was a pain now, steady and true. It was not going to go away.
“”What about me?” Jonah said, louder than he’d expected. “Here I am dead meat and all you can talk about is fireworks and cremation.”
The two woman swiveled shocked faces with round eyes and mouths toward him in tandem, like they were attached to the same invisible string and somebody had yanked the cord. “Jonah, honey,” his mother said, reaching her hand out with a soothing gesture. He pulled away and stumbled to his feet.”When are you going to wake up?” he yelled as he headed around the side of the house to his Land Cruiser. Didn’t they get it? The clock was ticking. It was only a matter of time before it all fell apart.