I was ten when my uncle overdosed on opioids. My father didn’t say much about it. But he did say something that stuck with me, running through my mind every now and then.
“It wasn’t hard to figure out, Sam,” he told me. “The people from the drug company wanted money. And they found a way to get it, your uncle and ev’rything else be damned.”
I was young at the time. But the comment stayed with me and later on in life I realized my dad meant that the Clasker family, the people who owned that big pharmaceutical company, well, those sacks-of-shit didn’t care if my uncle died from respiratory depression. He choked to death because he couldn’t get enough oxygen to his organs while overdosing on opioids. The Clasker family was cool with it as long as they got a good chunk of money out of my uncle before he was six feet under. In fact, they must have hated my uncle and wanted him dead, post-extraction of funds. Why else would they have pushed the drug in the manner they did? When I was older, I investigated their business more and that was exactly what they did: they filled their Swiss bank accounts with hundreds of billions in blood money, killing their ‘lessers’ in the deal. A two-for-one, in their eyes. And move on they did, using their network of doctors to tip tens and hundreds of thousands into a spiral of addiction and gradual death with their highly-addictive poisons, all sanctioned by the U.S. government and its broken medical institutions.
My family has always talked about getting out of Canton, but they never do it. The Weavers are stuck. My dad, he still runs a roofing company. Has for thirty-five years. Installation, repair, removal, whatever. When I was a kid, I remember telling my dad I wanted to be a roofer. He told me, emphatically, I should do anything except roofing. He said it was hot and dangerous and all the guys who worked for him did it because they were fuck-ups and had no better options. I took his response at face value, but I still recognized roofing as an important and honest trade. Maybe it’s just a bias I had because he’s my dad. But it’s as noble as just about any work you can do with your own hands and some tools. You’re helping someone have a home to live in. Once I maxed my SAT, I didn’t really think about roofing anymore. Other possibilities were open in front of me and others would have to do the work to keep roofs over people’s heads. My mom works a lot less than my dad, she’s a substitute teacher at the high school. That, and she’s also a pretty good cook. They’re two of the most decent people I know. I’m an only child, by the way. As for the rest of my family, my uncle is dead, like I said. My dad’s sister, my aunt, also lives in Canton and works as a medical nurse. She’s a single cat-mom and avid wine-drinker. She was internet famous for a few hours in twenty-twenty when she did a video twerk session with a couple of her female co-workers during the early stages of the ‘Corona’ story. I’m not sure if it’s irony or something else to point out that my aunt spends her days doling out the same type of corporate pharmaceuticals they used to kill my uncle to a bunch of other Ohioans. She probably took the ‘Corona’ virus vaccine too. It’s all so insane to me. I should mention I don’t think my aunt is a terrible person, she’s just way too deep into all of it to see what’s really going on. In my opinion, it wasn’t really her decision to be single and barren… that was done to her, but more on that later.
I graduated from Berkeley in twenty-one. I had looked at Ohio State and Bowling Green, and a bunch of other schools all around the country but ended up at Cal because of the school’s strength in the biomedical sciences. It’s a long story and the juice is not worth the squeeze, so I’ll just say the line of study that took me out west didn’t end up working out for me. I switched my major to business administration after my first year. Regardless, it looked as if I had punched my way out of Ohio for good since Berkeley’s alumni base was large and established pretty much all over the world. I expected this flexibility would apply to me as well. It’s not that I have anything against Ohio. I really don’t. It’s just that I knew in my bones Canton was a dead end, in my view at least. Maybe it was a decent place at one point in time, but after the globalization of the economy and the entry of the digital age, not so much. I didn’t want to be surrounded with what it had become, a burned-out chain-store wasteland.
As I found out when I went west, it’s not like there were easy-to-find, magical places outside of Canton. The strip malls and societal degeneracy plaguing Canton overtook most everywhere else too, it was just a matter of degree. It was better in some places and worse in others but all part of the same globalist framework. It seemed as if unidentifiable forces wanted to put some shitty chain-store or boxy apartment complex on every possible inch of land. And of course, there was no more uncharted territory, no place to just head off to and do cool shit. I had a feel for all of this, but I didn’t know about those things yet, not really.
I spent fall and half of winter of twenty-one there, though. I was living with my parents and hanging out with old friends from high school. House parties, chasing tail, playing video games, sleeping in, and all the rest. There were no real local businesses anymore, no local bars or mom and pop restaurants — only chain corporations. The mom and pops were pretty much all gone by the time I left for college but with the recent ‘Corona’ virus story everything left was either an Applebee’s or it might as well have been. That type of thing was revolting to me, so I came up with other things to do. Sometimes I brought girls up to Lake Cable to kiss them or finger them or whatever the moment seemed to call for. I banged a few of them but started getting worried about getting one pregnant so I toned it down after a while. These were run-of-the-mill girls; they would never get ten miles out of Canton. I simply couldn’t deal with the gravitational pull of a baby-momma, so I cleaned up my act; I dialed it all the way back. I started hitting my old weight set in the backyard maybe once a week but other than that I behaved aimlessly, just passing the time. During this stretch, I sent my resume around in response to postings on the job boards. Soon enough, I got a hit and agreed to interview to work for a technology company back out west, one of the major ‘titties-for-dick-pic’ swapping smart phone applications.
Because of my dad’s comment about the Clasker family and their opioid pills, I grew skeptical of the mega-corporations from a young age. Most Americans love their products. They keep wish lists and chase after the newest craze. They are always in product acquisition mode. Anyone — like me — who dares to throw a figurative bucket of cold water on their habits sets them off kilter. They get defensive quick. I don’t point it out to pontificate or pretend I’m above anyone else. Heck, I spent God-knows-how-much on video games over the year and even waited in line for a new console once. The mega-corps clawed at me just like everyone else. I’m not saying I’m better than everyone else, only that I noticed what was going on. It made me reluctant to go and work for one of them, especially in social media tech which I despised. But here’s the thing: I’m not independently wealthy. I had bills to pay, and after years of the ‘Corona’ virus narrative and small business shutdowns, working for a mega-corporation was definitely in the cards.
The dick-pic app received a major investment from a prominent private equity firm out of New York, and they were hiring boatloads of people to work in advertising and marketing. Every other opportunity I came across on the boards was for corporate pharmaceuticals or sugar products or alcohol brands or nicotine delivery systems plus a couple in tech. This landscape made me less reluctant to go work for some crappy messaging app. Put simply, I didn’t have a better option. The interview process went well, and the company offered me a job in their digital advertising group. Nude selfies it was! I jest, but like I said, it would pay the bills. I stayed in Canton until just after the new year and then headed west, flying out to San Francisco on January the fifth of twenty-two. I was scheduled to start work one week later, on the twelfth.
I spent an entire day looking for a room on-line. I found a few options but had not yet pulled the trigger when luck shined down upon me in an incredible way. I had been keeping up e-mail contact with one of my former teachers from Cal. Professor Olson acted as a reference on my job application and he also shared friendly advice with me from time to time. Anyhow, as part of our recent correspondence I let him know I had accepted a job and would be returning to the Bay Area.
I was surprised when he called me immediately after I sent him the note.
After a short greeting, he got straight to the point of the call, saying, “It’s funny you e-mailed when you did, because I have a friend who is looking for a house-sitter in San Francisco. It’s Rick Meyer, I’m sure you know who he is. We had coffee downtown just yesterday. He’s moving to Switzerland but doesn’t want to sell his place in San Francisco. He just wants someone to stay there and look after it. You would be perfect!”
I did know who Rick Meyer was. The guy had exited his company with a couple billion dollars; he sold it in twenty-seventeen.
“What would be the price on it?”
“No… Sammy, rent would be included in the deal. He would send you some money every month to pay for cleaners and yard work and stuff. He just wants someone staying there to look after the place. And I go way back with Rick, if I told him you’re my student and I trust you it would be a done deal. You should go for it.”
“I— yeah. That sounds absolutely unbelievable. Amazing, really. I’d love to do it!”
We chatted a little longer and hung up. It wasn’t more than two hours later when I got an email from Professor Olson, forwarded from Rick Meyer, with all the relevant information for the house. The address, details about picking up the keys, passwords and codes, and information about what he wanted done as to the upkeep for the home and who would be doing it. I wrote back to Rick to introduce myself and after a little bit of back and forth everything was set. I had a place to stay in San Francisco!
A week later, I was there. Rick Meyer’s house turned out to be a thirty-million-dollar mansion in Nob Hill, and I was staying there free of charge. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. The first thing I did after I arrived was set up my gaming console in the main room; it was inconspicuously tucked into the bottom left corner of the over-sized oak entertainment center stationed next to the monstrous fireplace. I settled into my routine quickly, heading to the office Monday through Friday, halfheartedly wearing a ridiculous medical mask as I walked through the hallways before nestling into my personal cubicle to do my work. I never pushed for a work-from-home option. I wanted to go to the office for work and maintain my sacred space at home for relaxation. And by relaxation I meant video games. Every night after work, I would come straight back and gamed the night away, pausing only to answer the door for the food delivery guy.
I settled into this routine day by day, week by week.
Each morning, I swam out into the San Francisco fog, arrived at the office, pushed out marketing content and advertising copy for our sleek dick-pic application, then returned home and whittled away my remaining hours in front of the television screen, blasting aggressive digital enemies to smithereens. I stayed off the dating apps. I avoided the smattering of bars which managed to stay open over the past couple of years. I didn’t even use the silly app produced by my employer. For a long time, I went to bed early. Keeping an even keel felt like the reasonable thing to do. After all, every two weeks I got a paycheck by direct deposit. Goal meets check mark. But a sensible approach like this doesn’t allow for much real achievement. It is safe to say real creation and adventure were decidedly not part of my day-to-day. I was lost — before I met Clayton Barlow, that is.
Remember, I didn’t know all of that yet. On the contrary, much of my existence — even if it sounds boring — was exhilarating for me. I still thought of myself as a kid, but I was living in a billionaire’s spread, in one of the richest zip codes in the country, surrounded by corrupt politicos, tech oligarchs and the rest of the old San Francisco upper crust in Nob Hill. Sometimes I would feel unbalanced when I thought about it, especially around sunset as I returned home from work.
Rick Meyer’s mansion — my place — was situated between two other historical mansions. The notable one, for the purposes of my story, was to the east. It was an art-deco inspired home originally constructed at the turn of the 20th Century and remodeled in its entirety about twenty years ago. I didn’t know it yet, but I would come to find out a guy named Clayton Barlow lived there.
Most of my co-workers lived north of me, in the Marina district. The area was full of young workers trying hard to impress one another with the latest fad. The area was crawling with soy bug-men, woke aficionados, loud vegans, craft-beer and craft-coffee enthusiasts who scarfed avocado toast and dyed the shock of hair floating above their flabby bodies purple or red or green or blue… they loved comic book movies and hip-hop and other stuff I had never even heard of. I am not even sure how to categorize them, these people were whatever came after the hipsters… they ran their little shtick in the same vein. I noticed the type when I was at Berkeley — they were all clones of one another, their personalities and interests bestowed on them by this corporation or that entertainment franchise — but I still found it odd after all these years. Not all the people were like that, mind you — and I would come to find out those exceptions, the free spirits, were a source of great consternation for certain people.
One Saturday, I was invited out to the Marina district by a pair of my co-workers, Andrew Hall and Joe Warner. They were roommates and they happened to be the two people I talked to the most at work. Or Andrew was, at least. I didn’t want to go over there, to be perfectly candid. I would have rather stayed in my sick mansion and played video games. But they pressed me hard via text messages and ultimately, I didn’t have a believable out other than insisting I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want them to think I was a shut-in. Around five-thirty, I put down my video game controller and jumped in a cab. I didn’t know either of them prior to starting work, but Andrew, like me, worked diligently to market the company product. Joe, he worked in the finance department and, as a matter of fact, he was in my graduating class at Berkeley, although I never met him while we were in school.
The roommates were opposites, physically.
Andrew Hall had the classic American look. Broad shoulders, square jaw, light brown hair, blue eyes. An accomplished jock, he played tight end at Boston College. He was one of those big, sturdy White boys who could run, block and catch. Supposedly, he was good enough to make it to the NFL. But not quite, I guess, since he didn’t. The difference can be a fraction of a second on a forty time or a slight difference in fast-twitch ability to come off a block or cut off a route. Anyhow, Andrew was about six-foot-four, with a head of thick golden-brown hair, a square jaw (like I said) and a prominent dimple on his chin. He must have weighed two hundred and forty pounds, damn near all of it muscle.
The same was most definitely not the case for Joe Warner. Beat with the ugly stick, Joe was short and scrawny with a potbelly. When he walked, he hunched over in the manner of a man fifty years his senior. His was a posture which could be earned and even dignified in old age but should not be tolerated in youth. He had greasy, curly black hair that receded at the temples and any honest description of his nose would sound mean, so I won’t add it here. His fingers looked like they were soggy. It didn’t require a close read of Schopenhauer to look at Joe Warner and understand he did not possess a beautiful soul.
Physiognomy was not Joe’s friend — he was inferior to Andrew in every measurable way — and I couldn’t help but wonder, after everything happened, if his bitterness stemmed from that very fact.
Although they were both intelligent, their mindsets were the opposite of one another. Andrew was genial, amused, friendly, and easy-going. He was always ready to share a laugh and add a funny observation, sort of a nineteen-fifties American mindset. Joe Warner, on the other hand, was neurotic, worried, obsessive, paranoid, aggrieved and prone to various perversions and absurd woke sentimentality. When Warner said something funny it was cutting and nasty in nature. Andrew’s humor was situational and, frankly, quite innocent, rarely veering toward sexual or scatological humor. Andrew took everything in stride; Joe complained about any perceived slight or inconvenience. Andrew was graceful and relaxed in conversation; Joe was fidgety and spoke in blurts, aggressively blasting out his opinions and observations with little regard for the person on the receiving end.
I cabbed it out to the Marina on that windy February evening. Their apartment was exactly what I expected, having been out to the Marina several times before — I went out to the bars there while in college. Their place was a low-slung two-bedroom near the water. I knocked and Andrew let me in the door, Joe stayed seated on the couch. Andrew and I gave an awkward fist bump as I walked in. Greetings became such a chore since the ‘Corona’ story emerged almost two years earlier. I don’t think either of us thought much of the actual danger — hell, Chris Christie survived whatever it was — but the corporate media hammered on it so relentlessly it didn’t matter. They planted seeds of doubt which grew like weeds, even around well-adjusted people. Basic physical interactions were ruined by the media acting as hype-man for big pharma and the government lock-down complex.
Joe’s beady eyes didn’t move from the television. Most young people had little to no interest in watching corporate news on cable television. But not Joe. He subscribed, and as I walked in, he was locked in on one of the cable news channels. This one, whatever it was, had an angry bull-dyke with coiffed brown hair pushed up such that she looked like a cheap, dick-less imitation of young Elvis. She kept agitating and shrieking with an aggressive, demonic vehemence, an evil anger that seemed to brew in her belly until it finally spewed as she vomited her garbage takes out of her mouth. She ranted on the screen, addressing some phony political issue or other. I heard her say something about the ‘return of fascism’ and the ‘war on domestic terror.’ I didn’t consider myself to be very political, and I willfully ignored the woman as best I could. During a pause in her hateful screed, Joe finally looked over at me and said, “Hey Sam.”
“What’s up, Joe,” I replied.
Joe tuned back into the television program with the angry carpet muncher. Andrew and I moseyed on into the kitchen area.
“I haven’t been out to the Marina in a couple years,” I said. “Your place is cool.”
“Yeah, it’s okay,” said Andrew. “You can walk over a block and there’s the water… just a couple minutes’ walk. People run out there or hang out, whatever. It’s a cool spot.”
There was stuff strewn about through the kitchen, which was not unexpected for an apartment belonging to a couple young guys. I looked around and nothing really caught my attention or my fancy. It was all run-of-the-mill stuff. There was next to no decor and a minimal level of functionality. A blender, a toaster, things like that.
A window in the kitchen was cracked and it gave the apartment a nice, airy feel. It was cold, but the crisp San Francisco evenings never bothered me. I kept my jacket on, though.
I heard a knock on the door and, glancing over to the main room I saw Joe Warner get up to answer the door. A guy of roughly our age, maybe a few years older, walked in.
When the door was open, a gust of wind came in with the visitor, I could feel it all the way in the kitchen.
The man sat down on the couch next to Joe Warner. The ridiculous woman was still shrieking out of the screen, contorting her face wildly. I gathered that her words were still propaganda aimed at influencing American retail politics, but otherwise they made no impression on my mind. I kept looking at her face and was put off by her physiognomy and her manner. For a second, I imagined she was complaining about her plantar fasciitis instead of some political bogeyman and the thought made me chuckle. Andrew walked back out into the main room and I followed.
The visitor was clearly comfortable right away. He lounged on the couch across from Joe.
Joe, mercifully, turned off the television. The other guy looked over at us as we walked into the main room. Joe looked angry and shook his head, seeming as if he was still gassed up from whatever the woman on the television was pushing.
“You guys hungry?” asked the new guy.
“Always!” bellowed Andrew, smiling.
“We don’t have anything here,” Joe told the guy. Then, looking at me, he added, “Sam, I hope we didn’t give you the impression we ordered food or whatever.”
“No big deal,” I replied. “I’m not dying. We can hit up a resto around here if you guys want. I’m on DoorDash every night if you don’t have an account.”
The new guy took a couple steps in my direction. I sensed he may have been measuring whether to offer a handshake. He didn’t. But he said, “I’m Cole, by the way.”
“I know, Andrew told me you were coming over. Said you work with him.”
“Yeah, that’s right. I do.”
I looked at Joe, then at Andrew. There was no energy in the room. Cole didn’t say anything else.
“You guys want to go for drinks instead?” asked Cole.
“Which bars are open? I haven’t been in a while,” said Andrew.
“No idea,” replied Cole.
“What’s the point? If they are open, we’ll end up having ten vodkas and the whole thing will be a shit-show. It always is,” groaned Joe. He looked at me and I thought he was prompting me to say something.
“Doesn’t matter to me,” I said.
“We can order delivery for here,” observed Cole.
“DoorDash,” I repeated.
“Is anyone even hungry?” asked Joe.
“I am, but if nobody else is… I can just figure something out around here. Scrounge something up or whatever,” said Andrew.
Joe Warner seemed uneasy and was fidgeting with his hands. He started to walk toward the kitchen then stopped.
“There’s a protest in Bay View Park,” he announced, looking at his cell phone.
“A protest for what?” Andrew asked, squinting.
“Black lives… matter.”
“What’s funny?” asked Joe.
“Oh… you’re serious?” I replied, embarrassed.
“Of course I am. What, you don’t think black lives matter?”
“Leave him alone, Joe,” interjected Cole.
“I was just saying,” Joe murmured. “They matter. It’s nothing to laugh about. And it’s something to do instead of going to the bars.”
“I’m not down for that,” said Andrew. “I’ve got nothing against the blacks, man. Let them do their thing. But I don’t want to go to Bay View Park, no way.”
“What can we do that’s not a dumb-ass protest and not a bar?” asked Cole.
The silence hanging in the room answered the question. Nobody could think of anything else to do. I thought about asking if they had a gaming console but didn’t say anything.
Andrew walked back into the kitchen, gathered a few glasses, took a bottle of vodka out of a kitchen cabinet and filled the glasses, half-way. He grabbed two cans of soda water from the fridge, cracked them open and topped the glasses off. He walked into the main room and passed the drinks out.
“Sorry guys, no ice,” he said as he made the delivery.
Cole was the first to take a deep swig of the vodka and soda. The rest of us followed suit.
“You guys wanna play cards?” asked Andrew.
“No,” answered Joe.
Andrew looked defeated.
“Put on some music,” said Cole, to nobody in particular. He tipped his cocktail back and finished it, then stood and walked toward the kitchen presumably to get another. As he went, he added, “It seems like we’re in a rut.”
I took a small sip of my drink and looked over at Cole in the kitchen. He stood upright, somewhere around six-foot-one — very fit — and he wore a long sleeve t-shirt, navy blue pants and non-descript sneakers. His brown hair was pushed back.
“Anybody else want one?”
“I do,” said Andrew after he slugged back the rest of his vodka.
Cole walked back over with the bottle of vodka and two cans of soda water and put them on the coffee table, saying, “There.”
“We can at least go across the street and sit on the bench by the water,” said Andrew as he filled his glass.
“Too windy,” said Joe.
“Sam here is regretting coming over right about now,” joked Cole. “Sitting in an apartment drinking warm vodka sodas. There has to be some disappointment involved.”
I laughed it off. Truthfully, I was kicking myself. I could have been home, sitting in a thirty-million-dollar mansion by myself, shooting digital people with digital guns.
“Nah, man. I don’t get out too much. It’s fine,” I lied.
“Where do you live?” Cole asked.
“Nob Hill. It’s not too far from work.”
“No shit? You live in Nob Hill?”
“Yeah… why?” I asked.
“I spend my weekends in Nob Hill, usually. I’m not there right now only because my friend with the house there is out of town. Not even sure what he’s doing… it’s the first time he’s been traveling in a long time. But I’ll be there next weekend, as usual.”
“That’s funny. Where do you stay?”
Cole described the location of his friend’s house to me. I sat in a state of silent surprise for a second, then replied, “That’s — that’s right next door to me. It’s literally the house next door.” I winced inside after I said ‘literally’ as if I were a sixteen-year-old girl.
“Really? You live in a mansion then? I’ve seen it. Must be nice.”
“Yeah. It’s nuts. I got really lucky with a connection through school. I’m actually a house-sitter, not a tenant.”
“No shit?” he asked.
“Swear it,” I said, as matter-of-fact as I could. “It was really lucky.”
“That’s crazy, man. Congratulations. Have you met your neighbor? Clay Barlow is his name.”
“No. But I’ve only lived there a little more than a month. I’m sure I will.”
Cole re-filled the glasses. I didn’t drink much at all in those days, so I was already feeling buzzed, but I didn’t object.
“Are you talking about the thing you’ve been trying to get me to go to?” asked Andrew. “The retreats or whatever?”
“Yeah. I’m going next weekend. Come along if you want,” replied Cole Winters, sipping his drink.
“All right,” said Andrew. “And if we’re just going to sit here all night, I’m ordering food.”
“All right… like you’ll come along?”
“Yeah, why not?”
“Cool. What are you gonna order?” Cole asked.
“Olive Garden, maybe. There’s one twenty minutes away… it’s on DoorDash.”
“Man, fuck Olive Garden. Come on,” said Cole, frowning.
“What do you want instead?”
“Steaks. With asparagus. From the grill.”
“Fine, but we’d have to go to the grocery store for that,” noted Andrew.
“It’s getting late,” complained Joe.
“Remind me how fun this was next time you guys ask me to come over,” I teased, as the vodka kicked in.
“It’s just hard to focus on having fun,” said Joe, “when there is so much oppression, still, in the country.”
This time, I was certain Joe was joking — I almost laughed out loud — until I looked at his face. He was dead serious. He looked as if he were possessed by a demon, or at least a religious-type fervor, as he spoke.
“It’s been over a year and a half since George Floyd was murdered and we still don’t have full equality for blacks!” he ranted.
Andrew’s eyes went wider as he heard Joe’s diatribe. I couldn’t tell if he was signaling surprise or more of a ‘here we go again’ type thing. No one responded to Joe directly, but Cole mumbled something and I was sure I heard the word ‘fentanyl’ cross his lips.
“Supremacy and fragility, everywhere!” hollered Joe Warner, continuing. “If it’s not supremacy, it’s fragility.”
No one responded, and I’m not sure anybody knew what Joe was talking about.
“Speaking of winning, what are we going to do for food?” asked Andrew.
“Order something, or nothing will ever happen,” I answered.
“I’ll order Shake Shack if nobody wants Olive Garden,” volunteered Andrew, pressing the screen on his phone.
“Is there anything besides a corporate chain?” asked Cole. “I don’t eat around here much.”
“It’s too hard to keep track of anything that’s not a chain. A lot of them shut down, even if they are listed online. If we tried to get some random Indian or Chinese food, we may never eat. Plus, it’s probably gross.”
“Also, you would get called out for… what is it they call it… appropriation?” said Cole with a snicker and a nod toward Joe Warner.
I wanted to say something like that before when Joe was talking about b-l-m. But I chickened out. If I were honest with myself, I was afraid if I said anything back to him, no matter how mild and well-reasoned, he would report me to human resources for ‘saying a racism’ or whatever. Maybe I was being paranoid, but I heard of crazier things being done by people who were into woke stuff. Once Cole spoke up to mock Joe, I felt like a chicken-shit and a coward. Then again, Cole didn’t work at the same company as Joe. Come to think of it, I wasn’t sure if Cole worked at all. I didn’t know him, and his vibe was like an old-time sportsman or a man of leisure. I pictured him on a fox hunt in the English countryside and laughed to myself at the image.
“It’s syste—,” insisted Joe, red-faced. But he was interrupted by Cole.
“Joe! Enough, man. We’re not doing political stuff tonight. It’s Saturday night. We’re not going to a fucking protest. We’re not talking about this stuff. Knock it off.”
Joe frowned in apparent disagreement. But his smart phone buzzed with a message or notification or something and he picked it up instead of responding. Andrew grabbed the remote control and put some music on. I must credit him for making sure the night didn’t spiral further with vodka and non-sensical argument.
“The food is ordered, and it will be here in about forty-five minutes,” said Andrew. “Olive Garden, baby!”
“Doesn’t matter to me… I just came over for the vodka,” said Cole.
“You can’t just get your own?” joked Andrew.
“I don’t drink alone,” replied Cole, smiling. “The only time I usually drink is at Barlow’s. In Nob Hill.”
“I was going to ask you — what do you mean you go over there every weekend?” I inquired. “Really?”
“Yeah, every weekend. He’s out of town tonight but that almost never happens. He hosts, like, group retreats for men around our age.”
I must have looked confused because Cole continued. For a second, I thought he might be joking. It sounded stupid.
“It’s nothing weird, we work on skills, do seminars on different topics, we lift weights — he’s got a big gym room — we brainstorm for stuff we can do in the future… like big stuff, huge things no one would think of… we talk about books, movies, music… people sit around and read, sometimes we watch a movie… we drink pretty heavily, but only on Saturday night after we’re productive on Friday night and all-day Saturday. For a few hours at the end of the night we have some drinks, shoot the shit, tell stories, make plans. The band plays, just guys from the group. It’s all casual, but there’s a structure and a productive bent. Certain things happen every weekend.”
I noticed Joe Warner’s ears as they perked up, but he didn’t say anything.
“It’s called the North Star Society,” added Cole Winters. “But really it’s just a bunch of guys hanging around and working on things. Challenging each other. It spills over into your daily life. It changes you. And if you—” he said, staring directly at me, “tell him I told you I’ll have to kill you. It’s confidential and it’s invite only.”
“Interesting,” I said, and I was being sincere.
“Cole keeps inviting me to these things but… I haven’t gone,” said Andrew.
“Not yet, you haven’t. I didn’t come over to hammer on you though,” said Cole. “Sam here only got me going on Barlow’s place because he lives next door. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have mentioned anything. I swear I didn’t come here to bug you. But, yeah, Andrew, he does want you to try it out one weekend.”
Joe Warner’s phone buzzed again and this time it was a call. He answered it and walked out of the room to talk.
When he left, Cole asked Andrew, “What’s the deal with that guy? I mean, bringing up protest shit and… listening to a wacked-out lesbo on television? Who watches that crap?”
“That’s just Joe. He’s like that. Calls himself a p-r-o-g-r-e-s-s-i-v-e,” answered Andrew, mocking the term with his tone. “He’s been running around with a bunch of, you know, like antifa types.”
“Re-branded commies,” said Cole, shaking his head slowly. “Pathetic. They’ve been going hog wild the last few years with all their riots and the other bullshit they do.”
“Yeah,” Andrew agreed, nodding.
“I shouldn’t have opened my mouth in front of him if he’s running around in those circles. Barlow would kick my ass,” said Cole, looking genuinely forlorn.
“Why? It’s a right-wing meeting group?” I asked, picturing jacked, tattooed skinheads storming Nob Hill and laughing to myself.
“No, it’s not any ‘wing.’ Retail politics never come up. Who gives a shit about career politicians not worth your time? NSS is way above that stupid corrupt shit, way bigger. Nobody is going to vote their way out of this mess anyway. Not EVER.”
“Then…what is it?”
“Well — I mean — if you absolutely had to put it in those terms, right or left, yeah, I guess so. They’ll call anything that isn’t woke and pozzed up and down with total faggotry far-right these days. That’s how they try to shut everyone who opposes globalism down. They use that attack and put it in their media. After that you get people screaming about Nazis and censorship. Trust me, it happens every time. It’s wild.”
I looked over at Cole and was about to say something else when Andrew asked him, “How long have you been going to these— these weekend things? I think you told me before—”
“Oh, about two years now. It’s been great for me. It’s hard to explain, though. You have to be there.”
A few minutes went by without anyone saying anything. The music kept playing. Next thing I knew Joe walked back into the room and soon afterword the food delivery guy showed up, a fat guy who looked exactly like the Amerimutt meme. Andrew answered the door to retrieve dinner. In ten minutes or so, everything he brought was devoured. This even though it was a very mediocre selection. Rubber chicken with too much salt and lukewarm bread sticks, to be precise.
There was another knock on the door. Joe sprung up off the couch, grabbing his jacket from next to him as he lifted himself up, and heading toward the door.
“I’ll catch you guys later,” he said.
Andrew looked confused and offered up a feeble, “Where are you going?”
“Oakland. Something came up out there… I didn’t know I was going until half-an-hour ago. I’ll be back in a couple hours.”
“No big deal, man. Nothing going on here anyway,” said Andrew.
A few seconds later and Joe was gone. Cole Winters walked to the window and looked out as Joe stood on the porch for a second before he walked off with the visitors. I only caught a quick look at them when Joe opened the door. Two of them were White guys, one with a pock-marked face and one with a big beak. The third was black guy wearing a hoodie. All three of them were skinny, and the White guys were dressed in black from head-to-toe.
Cole looked over at me and said, “It’s worse than I thought. I’m going to need to tell Barlow I messed up and mentioned North Star in front of Warner. I know better than that.”
“I wouldn’t worry about Joe too much,” said Andrew. “He’s wound so tight he’ll forget what he heard right away. He’ll be off on some weird tangent.”
“It doesn’t seem like a big deal. They’re retreats. Who can get mad about reading books and lifting weights?” I added.
“It’s not a huge deal… but it was stupid of me to open my mouth in front of that guy. What a jerkoff. You’re not getting dragged into any of his bullshit, are you Andrew?”
“Nah. It’s kind of crazy though, he wasn’t like this when I agreed to move in here. I wouldn’t have done it. All that stuff has been coming on strong… like he’s programmed. He’s mad all the time and he rants on and on about ‘fascists’ and ‘White people.’ He wants everyone who disagrees with him banned from the internet, from television… junk like that. Sometimes he screams about wanting people shot. Like when his television people are talking about someone he disagrees with. I’m not political, man. I don’t pay attention to that stuff. But sometimes when he’s yelling, I’m, like, uh… Joe… hello… I’m White. I never told him I voted for Trump in sixteen, though,” said Andrew, chuckling as he finished his comment.
“How’d that work out for you?” asked Cole, smiling. “Are we great again or what?”
“Well, I stopped paying attention because whenever I did, I just heard about Israel and black unemployment. Over and over… Israel, Israel, Israel. I was like ‘What about America?’” said Andrew, chuckling again. “I got tired of it and I haven’t paid attention to politics since about twenty-seventeen. It’s not my thing.”
“Yeah, America first something-something,” agreed Cole. “Then it all ended with a pardon for some rappers. It wasn’t his fault, really. The country is too far gone. It’s a corrupt shithole. A place, not a real Nation. You know all the money they print? Well, it ends up in New York and Northern Virginia. I have no idea why people stand for the corruption. Anyway… read your Vaclav Havel, the way out is through. Barlow did a lecture on him a couple months ago. He breaks it down so it’s easy to understand. Voting can’t fix this… that should be obvious by now.”
“No sense in worrying about all this stuff right now,” I said. “Let’s have one more drink and then I’m going to hit the road.”
“I hear you,” said Cole. “But it’s not going to stop just because we ignore it. Something’s got to happen.”
Around the same time I left the apartment to catch a cab home, all the way across the country in New York, Sheldon B. Schwarzman grinned lasciviously and rubbed his hands together as he looked at his computer screen. His net worth, according to the bright green figure on his monitor, was more than $25,000,000,000. He clicked a link to check a different number, this one the balance sheet for a portfolio company belonging to his primary private equity firm. The Federal Reserve wired the company a billion dollars. Cold, hard cash, fresh off the money printer and right into the hands of the rich and powerful.
Now please keep in mind, I wasn’t there for this part of the story… the Sheldon Schwarzman scene. I didn’t know this was happening at the time. In fact, I don’t know if it happened exactly as written: I didn’t see it or hear it for myself. But it’s an important piece of the puzzle, so I’m going to tell it anyway. With the hindsight I gained over the next year, I know something like this happened. And, putting my money where my mouth is, I would bet it went exactly like this.
“Easy money!” Sheldon shouted. He composed himself for a second, still grinning. “Got to get to thirty,” he said with a lusty whisper. “Still time to get to thirty. Or thirty-five.”
He had been in front of the computer screen for quite some time, checking in on his figures, the electronic display of the present value of his assets.
“Sheldon, it’s your birthday tomorrow and you haven’t committed to any plans,” complained Sheldon’s wife, peeking in the door.
“I’ll be down in a short minute, Sarah. I’m just checking the figures.”
“You’re going to be sixty-nine,” Sarah went on, even though Sheldon was obviously trying to get rid of her. “I wanted to plan a trip.” Her eyes were sad as she spoke.
Sheldon Schwarzman lifted his hand in the air, as if to say, ‘hold on a minute.’
“I have one more number to check. A few of my portfolio companies are funding some, uh, important social interests. Charity and such. One second, Sarah.”
He clicked a link on his monitor and squinted at the screen.
“Okay, it’s confirmed, two hundred fifty thousand to the Oakland black liv—” he muttered, addressing the computer screen.
“Are you coming downstairs?”
“Yes. I’m finished. One minute.”
“Always these figures, figures, figures,” said Sarah. “You never have time for anything but figures.”
“Money makes the world go ‘round,” said Sheldon. “Everybody needs funds. Our movement depends on me.”
“So, is there anything we can do for your birthday? I’m panicking because I wanted to do something nice and you never would give me an answer. Now I didn’t plan anything, and I don’t know what to do.”
“That’s— I want to… I want to do something huge for number seventy.”
“That’s next year, Sheldon. You’re turning sixty-nine!”
“I know! That’s when I want to do something big. Next year. A big party. Big, big, big. A party for the ages, we will spare no expense.”
“But what about this year?” Sarah asked.
“We’ll have a quiet dinner here. Next year, that’s the celebration. I want it in all the papers, we’ll spend more money than has ever been spent on a birthday party. We’ll spend money like we’re just printing it up. I want to do it at the Langham.”
“Okay, Sheldon, if that’s what you want to do,” replied Sarah. “I would love to help plan for next year at the Langham.”
At this time, I need to request patience: the reasons I came to know about the billionaire Sheldon Schwarzman and was able to reconstruct this conversation as I suspect it happened, will become apparent in due time.
After I left Andrew Hall’s apartment, the ride back out to Nob Hill was short and uneventful. The characteristic San Francisco wind was violent and almost knocked me over with its blustery fist as I exited the cab. I withstood the punch with a body-lean and set off toward my front door when, for no reason at all, I stopped and looked back over my right shoulder at the Barlow mansion. A waft of smoke caught my eye, visible due to the lighting on the front of the house and rising from some source on the second level balcony or veranda — I’m unsure of the correct word for the second-level perch from which the smoke rose. I traced the origin of it down and was surprised to see a man standing with an old-fashioned pipe in his mouth, his outer layer of clothing a white robe. ‘That has to be Barlow,’ I thought, as he took another puff. I started walking again and re-trained my vision on the stone path in front of me and, eventually, my front door. A second later, I looked back again, just at the moment Barlow and the white robe disappeared back inside. I saw the French doors close behind him and, in turn, I finished the last hundred steps of my journey home. How was I to know the man with the tobacco pipe would cause me to doubt everything about how I lived?